Three years ago, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a major criminal justice package designed to reduce the state’s overflowing prison population. The bill, which Edwards said would make Louisiana’s title as the most incarcerated state a thing of the past, has resulted in a 6 percent overall decrease.

One part of the prison population, though, remains high: those serving life without parole. Louisiana’s so-called lifers number nearly 4,700, more than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas combined, according to the Sentencing Project. Experts blame draconian sentencing standards and ineffective counsel. And unlike most states, Louisiana prohibits inmates from challenging their convictions on either of those grounds, permanently cementing their status.

That could change, however, as the Louisiana Supreme Court considers the case of Derek Harris, a 1991 Gulf War veteran who was prosecuted as a habitual offender after selling $30 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer in Abbeville, La., in 2008. Harris, whose previous offenses included theft and dealing cocaine, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, though he had no record of violent crime. Currently serving his sentence at Angola, Harris is asking the court to reinstate the ability of inmates to contest their sentences on the grounds that they are excessive and the result of inadequate legal representation.

The case is part of a larger movement, in Louisiana and across the country, to reconsider the use of life without parole, which critics contend has been unfairly used against minorities, juveniles and those convicted of nonviolent offenses. African Americans account for 73.4 percent of all lifers in Louisiana, though they make up 32 percent of the state’s population. 

Tough-on-crime politicians, prosecutors and sheriffs take pride in the state’s high number of people serving life without parole, boasting that in Louisiana, “life means life.” Attorney General Jeff Landry previously said the state’s changes were “reckless” and “dangerous” while emphasizing the “need for truth in sentencing,” a term that typically refers to the reduction or elimination of parole eligibility.

Advocates for reform had hoped Edwards would release some lifers, many of whom are elderly or chronically ill, during the coronavirus pandemic. But like most governors, he focused his release efforts largely on nonviolent offenders.

“It’s disheartening,” said Marcus Kondkar, an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans. “Any serious plan to scale back the prison population in this state will have to confront the harsh sentencing practices that have sent so many people to prison for most or the rest of their lives. And it will also have to reckon with the thousands of men, mostly black men, convicted of a violent offense.”

Edwards provided a statement to The Washington Post highlighting the five commutations he signed for people serving life without parole during the pandemic. In addition, he pointed to the 2017 criminal justice overhaul package, which allows for people convicted of second-degree murder between 1973 and 1979 to become eligible for parole after serving 40 years, provided there is a unanimous vote by the parole board.

Louisiana’s sizable lifer population is driven largely by its approach to second-degree murder, which is defined by the absence of premeditation. A common example is when a robbery goes wrong and someone is inadvertently killed. Under the law, both the person who pulled the trigger and the person driving the getaway car can be charged with second-degree murder. 

Only in Louisiana and Pennsylvania is the punishment for such an offense automatic life without parole. Those convicted of second-degree murder make up more than 50 percent of Louisiana lifers.

A life sentence in the state used to carry parole eligibility after 10 years and six months until 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty. Legislators reacted by pushing back eligibility to 20 years, then 40 years until abolishing it altogether in 1979.

As a result, the lifer population exploded. Louisiana now has nearly three times the number of people serving life without parole than its entire prison population in 1970, according to the Sentencing Project. 

That has created an older and more sickly population, which puts a financial burden on prisons. Correctional facilities with high percentages of older prisoners — who are not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare — pay 14 times more for medication and five times more for health-care services than prisons with younger populations, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. During a 2019 budget hearing, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections noted that it spent $3.7 million a year on one inmate’s pharmaceutical needs, a price that isn’t unusual for elderly or severely ill patients, according to various reports. It costs an average of nearly $23,000 annually in Louisiana to house a single inmate.

Advocates for the restoration of parole eligibility point to studies showing that after decades in prison, the majority of people no longer pose a threat to society. A Louisiana State University study of offenders who have served decades in prison and were released by pardon found that the recidivism rate was virtually nonexistent: zero for those convicted of second-degree murder and 2 percent for those convicted of first-degree murder.

Law enforcement groups, though, remain committed to the current system when it comes to violent offenders. As part of the state’s criminal reform efforts, legislators considered reinstating parole for those lifers who have served 30 years and are at least 50 years old. The district attorneys’ and sheriffs’ associations, both of which wield significant political power, objected, and the proposal was abandoned.

With efforts to restructure the system currently stalled, the only avenue available for lifers is the clemency process. In four years in office, though, Edwards has approved 46 commutations with 111 still awaiting his signature; more than 1,100 people applied. 

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the state’s laws are tough for a reason.

“At some point, people have demonstrated an inability to function with others in society without doing significant harm,” Lampert said. “Then there is the general deterrent effect. You did something bad, others see what happened to you, and decide not to make that same choice.”

In Louisiana, that policy often extends to juveniles. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling eliminated the use of life without parole for juveniles except for the “rare” and “uncommon” child whose offense reflects “permanent incorrigibility.” Since that ruling, 57 percent of all juveniles charged with murder in the state have received life without parole, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Renée Slajda, communications director for the center, says that’s a blatant violation of the Supreme Court mandate.

“District attorneys are telling these kids, ‘You can’t change and become better people. You are never redeemable,’ ” Slajda said. “That is fortunetelling and especially egregious for children because their brains are literally not developed yet.”

Claims of excessive sentencing and ineffective counsel are two of the most common grievances among lifers and are the basis of Harris’s case before the state Supreme Court. He alleges that his attorney failed to raise his military service and subsequent mental health and substance abuse issues when arguing against a sentence of life without parole.

New Orleans Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said this is a recurring problem, as public defense is historically underfunded in Louisiana — $59 million annually compared with $145 million for prosecutors. Most of that money is spent during the trial, leaving little for the sentencing phase, Bunton said.

Because public defenders lack the money to hire experts such as a psychiatrist, who could give context to someone’s actions and lead to a lesser sentence, judges are given a one-dimensional picture of their clients — and that compromises the entire system, Bunton said. 

Louisiana’s public defense funding — which is raised through court fines and fees, traffic tickets and seat-belt violations — has all but disappeared during the pandemic. Advocates say that has further endangered public defenders and the ability of the children’s rights center to continue representing juveniles facing life without parole.

“You’re already starting with an imperfect process with underfunded public defenders, bad laws, bad policies,” Bunton said. “And then, all of a sudden, we put all this faith and permanence in [the sentence] that comes out at the end? That’s just nuts.”