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New ND law makes all juveniles eligible for release from prison

BISMARCK — A new law signed by the governor on Monday will give all convicted juveniles — regardless the crime — an opportunity for release from prison.

House Bill 1195 allows long-serving inmates, who were sentenced as kids, to apply for release after 20 years.

The court is required to consider the defendant's age at the time of the offense, behavior inside prison, victim and prosecutor's perspective and "the diminished culpability of juveniles compared to adults and the level of maturity and failure to appreciate the risks and consequences."

If the petition is rejected, a person can apply again after five and 10 years.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

"Overall, we've recognized what society is recognizing, that juveniles should be treated a little differently," said bill sponsor Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck. "It will be an incentive for them to be on good behavior while they're in prison and make an earnest effort to become rehabilitated, so they can go back into society."

An earlier version of the bill simply banned life without parole for juveniles and replaced it with life with the opportunity for parole. But that option meant that juveniles would still serve much longer than adults for their crimes, because "life" would be calculated at their life expectancy, and they would be required to serve 85 percent of that time, Klemin said.

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, who advocated for the bill, said North Dakota is the 19th state to get rid of life without parole for kids. South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming passed similar bills in recent years.

"The law that passed in North Dakota is consistent with a national trend, moving away from these most extreme sentences we put on our children," Lavy said. "It balances the need to hold young people accountable for harm they've caused and takes into account their age and unique characteristics as children."

Under current North Dakota law, defendants ages 14 to 17 can be sentenced to life without parole if their case is serious enough to be transferred to adult court and they are found guilty. The sentencing decision is made by a judge.

But it's rare in North Dakota that anyone under 18 is sentenced to life in prison.

Currently, there is one person serving a life without parole sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile, Leann Bertsch, director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in January. It is Barry Garcia, who, then 16, shot Cherryl Tendeland through the window of a car in a gang-related murder in Fargo in 1995.

Two other people are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for crimes committed at an early age, Bertsch said. They are Michael Neugebauer, who killed his family in Menoken in 1992, and Sergei Carlson, who killed his sister in 2007.

Klemin said the bill will not apply retroactively, including to those three cases.