Baton Rouge, Louisiana – A legislative task force convened for the first time this week to examine changes to state law to allow for the possibility of parole for certain second-degree murders.
The task force stems from legislation introduced last session by Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, that aims to give judges some discretion in sentencing second-degree murders, which currently come with mandatory life without parole.
The legislation, Senate Bill 112, was sidelined over concerns about the potential impact on other crimes, with the legislature instead passing Senate Concurrent Resolution 45 to form a task force to study the issue and make recommendations to the legislature.
The task force is made up of legislators from both parties and both chambers, as well as judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, corrections officials, parole officials, professors from LSU and the Southern University Law Center, and a representative from the attorney general.
“A lot of people felt there was room for life without parole, but the devil is in the details,” Abraham said at Thursday’s meeting. “I hope we can get together and see where we land, and where we have common ground.”
Kerry Myers, executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, said the second-degree murder penalty under current law is not fair based on participation in an event.
“Right now, we have a felony murder law … (with) people convicted of second-degree murder who did not commit the actual murder, did not participate in the planning of the murder, and had no intent to commit that murder,” Myers said. “. “But under the law as it stands now, they are equally guilty if they were implicated in the felony that led to this murder, and they are sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.”
“The other issue is that for 40 years we have deprived judges of discretion,” he said. “I think this is also an issue about taking back some discretion.”
Lauren Lambert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, noted that Abraham SB 112 requires changes to 33 state statutes to distinguish between passive participants who had no intent and an active participant who actually committed murder.
“There are a lot of pieces put on top of this,” he said. “One of the things we really have to agree on is moving forward on some definitions. … I think what we need to do is discuss the difference between murder and manslaughter.”
Angela Allen Bell, a professor at the Southern University Law Center, and others highlight the country’s leading incarceration rate in Louisiana, and its minimal impact on public safety.
“Some of these people have exceeded their judgment, and it needs to be done,” she added.
Deputy Attorney General John Sinkfield noted that 149 life sentences have been commuted in the past 90 months, suggesting that “people who deserve to get out don’t end up living their lives without parole.”
Sinkfield said drug dealers who sell drugs that ultimately kill people will be among those who stand to benefit most from the potential changes.
“These people are ruining people’s lives,” he said. “I don’t think this is the time to send a message to the Legislature that we’re becoming more lenient on second-degree murder.”
Tony Marabella, who has served as a judge, prosecutor, public defender and parole board member, was among those who “believe the second-degree murder statute needs to be looked at…because it doesn’t seem fair.”
“There are unintentional crimes,” he said. “It actually deprives the judge of the discretion to be able to distinguish between these people.”
Others, including Department of Corrections Chief of Operations Seth Smith, have pointed to additional benefits of changing the law, such as keeping those who are not a threat out of the prison system and providing hope for prisoners, which he said makes his job easier.
“It will save money,” he said.
The task force plans to seek testimony from the public at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.