A History of Life Without Parole in Louisiana
Late 19th Century
"Convict-Leasing," the Creation of the Pardon Board and "Life" as a 15-Year Minimum Sentence
In the decades before the Civil War, Louisiana courts sentenced people to life in prison, but did not have state-run institutions where these sentences could be served. In the 1840s, Louisiana landowners began exploiting the shortage of prisons by implementing a brutal practice called "convict-leasing." Louisiana managed its prisoners by awarding contracts, typically in five-year periods, to private corporations formed by land-owning white men, who were then free to lease the convicts and profit from their labor.
After slavery was ended, convict-leasing expanded as governments in several states, including Louisiana, conspired with planters and other employers to continue to control formerly enslaved people and extract cheap or free labor from them.
This was partly achieved by
so that almost anyone could be convicted of a "crime" and forced into convict leasing. Many recently-emancipated Black people were branded as criminals, and a disproportionate number received life sentences.
This racial disparity has persisted; today’s life-sentenced population in Louisiana is 75 percent Black.
In 1869, Louisiana awarded the state contract to oversee prisoners to ex-Confederate Major Samuel Lawrence James. In 1880, James purchased Angola plantation and moved the prisoners there, continuing to sell them to brutal labor camps across the South.
It’s estimated that 3,000 people died under "the James lease," which lasted from 1870 to 1901.
In response to growing unrest caused by the horrors of convict leasing, Louisiana lawmakers created the
to release prisoners.
Most life-sentenced prisoners were excluded, until an 1890 statute offered a glimmer of hope.
After serving 15 years, people with life sentences could go before the board and ask for a
. However, many convict-leased prisoners continued to die before they had a chance to seek freedom.
In 1901, convict-leasing ended in Louisiana and the state opened the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where people with life sentences were housed.
Life Sentences Commonly Last Ten Years and Six Months
For most of the 20th century, the meaning of a life sentence in Louisiana was ten to 15 years. People serving life sentences could seek a commutation after 15 years, until 1926, when the Louisiana legislature shortened that time to ten years and six months to save costs at Angola.
This became known as the "10/6 law."
Release under 10/6 was a three-step process: first, the prison warden forwarded a clemency recommendation to the pardon board for review; if board members agreed with the recommendation, they sent it to the governor for his signature. If the governor agreed, he would grant clemency and commute the prisoner's sentence.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, almost all life-sentenced prisoners went home after ten years and six months. Louisiana released more than 90 percent of people with life sentences through commutations.
States like Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina, as well as the federal system, also released people with life sentences after ten or 15 years."
Dwindling Paths to Release
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily struck down the
, which resulted in Louisiana’s death-sentenced prisoners being resentenced to life. This set in motion a series of changes to Louisiana’s criminal justice system, including the abandonment of the 10/6 law to prevent formerly death-sentenced prisoners from seeking release.
For almost 50 years, commutations were granted to life-sentenced prisoners with good conduct records after they had served ten years and six months.
As many as 2,600 people were released.
But in the 1970s, a new system for commutations was established. People with life sentences could still seek a commutation of sentence by applying directly to the pardon board after 15 years, but changes to the composition and rules of the board resulted in far fewer clemency recommendations making it to the governor’s desk. Commutations went from being nearly automatic to being extremely rare.
Individuals who were preparing to go home after ten years and six months were now faced with spending the rest of their lives in prison.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana legislature increased the number of offenses punishable by a
life sentence without the possibility of parole ("life without parole") from
In a political culture that increasingly favored harsh sentencing, life now truly meant life.
A Surging Lifer Population
For most of Louisiana’s history, the number of incarcerated people with life sentences was never more than a few hundred at any given time. For example, in 1972, Louisiana had 193 people serving life sentences.
However, by 1980, that number had jumped to 800; by 1989, there were almost 2,000 people serving life without parole.
By abolishing the 10/6 law, imposing new restrictions on the pardon board, and expanding the types of crimes punishable by mandatory life without parole sentences, the state ensured that the number of Louisiana citizens sentenced to die in prison would grow exponentially. At the same time, Louisiana governors' willingness to grant commutations evaporated due to increased public pressure and scrutiny related to criminal justice issues.
Many other states also expanded the use of life without parole during this period. Between 1992 and 2016, the number of life without parole sentences nationwide grew more than 400 percent.
Limiting Access to the Courts
In the 1990s, as incarceration rates skyrocketed, courts and lawmakers limited the ability of defendants to appeal their convictions and sentences, stripping the legal system of the checks and balances meant to ensure fair and just outcomes. In Louisiana, prisoners who needed the courts to review unfair elements of their original trials now faced new and difficult time limits to file these requests before their rights to further appeals would be lost. The powers of federal courts to review state convictions were also severely limited.
While anyone accused of a crime has a right to legal assistance, after being convicted, prisoners no longer have the right to a lawyer, so most prisoners had no legal help, regardless of their circumstances. Without professional legal support, the new laws made it nearly impossible for people with life sentences to correct injustices through the courts.
Life Means Life
The meaning of "life sentence" has drastically changed for people incarcerated in Louisiana in the last 50 years. Life sentences have become a state of permanent imprisonment. The result is that Louisiana's prisons today hold thousands of life-sentenced people who are aging and dying; over half are more than 50-years old. Hospice programs have been established in many institutions, mainly staffed by volunteers who are also serving life sentences. Angola’s original prison cemetery is filled to capacity, and a second is almost full.
In the absence of legislative reform, the only hope for these men and women is a commutation from the governor. Prior to 1972, Louisiana governors commuted almost all life sentences. Today, that number has dropped to barely one percent.