Bill proposed to allow minors sentenced to life in prison a chance at parole

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BISMARCK, N.D. - When the cry goes out to be tough on crime, there can sometimes be unintended consequences.

In North Dakota, a minor can be sentenced to life without parole if convicted of a class AA felony.

One lawmaker is trying to change that.

Only one person from North Dakota is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being convicted as a minor, but some lawmakers want that number to be zero.

Many states find it inhumane to sentence minors to life with out parole, but that's not the case in North Dakota.

"If convicted of a crime punishable by life in prison, that child can then be sentenced to die in prison at the end of his natural life," says Rep. Lawrence Klemin.

Representative Lawrence Klemin is trying to give juveniles a chance at parole.

Proponents of the bill say cognitive functions haven't fully formed in the brains of minors, and people change.

"If each one of us thinks about what we were like at 18, are we different now? The answer is universally yes," says Jackson Lofgran ND Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Opponents agree, but they have an issue with losing all options for sentencing.

"For the most part, prosecutors agree - juveniles should not receive life sentences. However, this is a blanket prohibition on any type of factual scenario you can imagine. That juvenile would never be subjected to a life without parole sentence," says Aaron Birst, ND Association of Counties.

There's only one person in the state serving a life sentence without parole for a crime they committed as a minor. Barry Garcia, who was convicted of killing Cherryl Tendeland in 1997.

Supporters say just because there's a possibility of parole, doesn't mean it will be granted.

"Limiting the use of life without parole does not guarantee such individuals will be released. It guarantees them a meaningful opportunity for release," says Leann Bertsch, Director ND Dept. of Corrections.

Supporters also cited multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases where life without parole for minors was ruled unconstitutional

The bill could be on the floor as soon as next week.