New hearings for five prisoners sentenced for murder as juveniles could be so expensive for the Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Office that the agency could end up laying off attorneys.

A state law that went into effect this year makes juveniles given life sentences eligible for parole after serving 25 years and meeting certain educational requirements. In extreme cases however, district attorneys can block access parole during a new sentencing hearing if the juvenile lifer is considered the “worst of the worst” and unable to be rehabilitated.

Experts have told Jefferson Parish public defenders that these new sentencing hearings for juveniles already in prison will cost the defense team more than $50,000 each on average. They require expert witnesses, psychiatric evaluations and extensive record searches.

“We simply don’t have the money to fund the cases,” said Paul Fleming, deputy district public defender in Jefferson Parish. Fleming said one attorney in his office would have to be laid off for each of the five new sentencing hearings if his office has to fund them itself. If the lack of money leads to an inadequate defense, it will likely end up costing more in the long run because those cases would end up in federal court, several attorneys said

The U.S. Supreme Court has told Louisiana twice it needs to offer parole to more of its prisoners who were convicted of murder as teenagers. Juveniles, in particular, have the ability to grow and mature out of destructive behavior, which means they should only be given life sentences without parole in rare cases, according to the court.

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Julia O'Donoghue | The Times-Picayune

Julia O'Donoghue is one of two state politics reporters based in Baton Rouge for The Times-Picayune and She grew up in another government town, Washington D.C., and is conducting research on how to be a rabid ice hockey fan while living the South.


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