The Republican-dominated Louisiana Senate voted overwhelmingly to abolish juvenile life without parole Tuesday, allowing juvenile offenders to become eligible for parole after 35 years in prison. Once the bill is approved by the House—which already passed a similar measure—it will go to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature. Edwards, a Democrat who strongly supports juvenile justice reform, is almost certain to sign it.
Louisiana’s aggressive push against juvenile life without parole has significant constitutional implications. Under the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, a mode of punishment is “cruel and unusual” when it is inconsistent with “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” To gauge these standards, the court typically looks to trends among the states. For instance, once a majority of states either outlawed or effectively discontinued the use of capital punishment for juvenile offenders, the Supreme Court declared the sentence unconstitutional.
With a push from the court, a swing away from JLWOP has been under way for several years. In 2012, the court forbade mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders—in other words, minors could no longer be automatically condemned to life in prison for committing certain crime. Its ruling spurred 23 states to revisit and loosen their JLWOP laws. (That includes conservative states like Texas; criminal justice reform does not always fall along traditional partisan lines.) Then, in January, the Supreme Court significantly expanded its previous ruling, applying it retroactively and reaffirming that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.”
Technically, these rulings did not ban JLWOP altogether; they permitted states to resentence juvenile offenders, rather than making them eligible for parole. (If a judge finds, at resentencing, that the offender’s crimes reflected “irreparable corruption” rather than “the transient immaturity of youth,” she can keep him behind bars permanently.) But Louisiana clearly sees the writing on the wall: The Supreme Court chips away at constitutionally dubious punishments step by step, and the obvious next step is to proscribe JLWOP altogether. Some Louisiana lawmakers supporting the measure acknowledged that they are simply anticipating and preempting a future court ruling.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! The continual refinement of Eighth Amendment standards has always been a tacitly collaborative process, with states looking to the Supreme Court and vice versa. This push and pull helps both states and courts work toward a rough “national consensus,” limiting the most extreme punishments through the democratic process as well as judicial determinations.
Louisiana’s push to ban JLWOP may soon persuade the Supreme Court to prohibit that particular sentence altogether—requiring states to let every juvenile offender demonstrate their rehabilitation after several decades of imprisonment. The Bayou State, after all, was formerly one of the country’s most enthusiastic supporters of JLWOP, sentencing a disproportionate number of minors to life behind bars. With its new reform, the number of JLWOP sentences currently being carried out in America will plummet. And very soon, thanks to Louisiana’s about-face, JLWOP itself may look unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” to the Supreme Court.