By Grace Toohey
Less than 36 hours after his release from prison, Steve Perkins sat in front of a class of law students, giving them advice.
Perkins hadn’t been in a traditional classroom in more than four decades, yet here he was as evidence that youthful offenders once sent away for life could be rehabilitated — even after killing someone.
“In the ‘80s, even though there was no hope (in Angola), I still bettered myself,” Perkins told the students. “I didn’t want to just be the same naive kid that had a murder charge that was in for life.”
Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have declared that, except in extremely rare cases of “irreparable corruption,” youthful offenders should not be sentenced to a life behind bars, deserving a meaningful opportunity to win their freedom. Justices found that juveniles are inherently different from adults, with diminished culpability and a greater capacity to rehabilitate.
Louisiana had about 300 prisoners like that, placing the state third nationally, behind Pennsylvania and Michigan, in the number of juvenile offenders serving terms of life without parole. Under a new state law, about two-thirds have since received new sentences that include an opportunity for parole, but many of the remaining cases languish.
The effort to win their release has gone slowly, which had brought Perkins to the LSU Law Clinic. He was one of a few with first-hand success, able to advise student interns how to support their future clients — other so-called juvenile lifers convicted of murders committed when they were 17 or younger.