Gov. John Bel Edwards has spent his last months in office doling out mercy at a pace unseen in decades from a Louisiana governor. Edwards has commuted the sentences of 70 prisoners since August, among 123 commutations he’s issued over his final year in office, according the state Board of Pardons and Parole. That’s by far the highest tally of any single year over his two terms, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
In the bulk of those decisions, Edwards turned life sentences for long-serving prisoners convicted of murder into a number of years — ranging from 35 to 99 — at the board’s recommendation. That enabled the immediate release of several of the longest-serving prisoners on “good time,” while bestowing parole eligibility to scores of others who were sentenced to life. The parole board has granted release to many of them since. Francis Abbott, the board’s executive director, said that 41 of the 123 people granted commutations this year by the governor remain in prison.
A 2021 law expanded parole eligibility to long-serving prisoners who are not serving life, once they’ve completed 20 years in prison and reached the age of 45. They still must win the approval of the parole board to go free. More than 90% of the 123 commutations Edwards has granted in 2023 went to prisoners serving life sentences. The vast majority have served at least 20 years; about half spent the last 30-plus years locked up. Edwards commuted the life sentence of Leon Brent, the longest-serving prisoner on the list, to 99 years on Aug. 1. He was released the next day. Now in his 80s, Brent was convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced in 1964. The average age of the 123 prisoners at their clemency hearings was 57. On a per-capita basis, Louisiana has far more people serving life without parole than any other state. “The men and women whose sentences were commuted by the governor represent a small fraction of our state’s 4,000-plus lifer population,” said Andrew Hundley of the Louisiana Parole Project, which supports and houses incarcerated people reentering society. “Most of them had served more than three or four decades in prison and their records indicate clear evidence of remorse and rehabilitation. These individuals were thoroughly vetted by an open and public process, and they have proven they are worthy of a second chance.”