LITTLE ROCK — A bill to modify sentencing guidelines in cases involving juvenile defendants accused of violent crimes was tabled for further study in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

LITTLE ROCK — A bill to modify sentencing guidelines in cases involving juvenile defendants accused of violent crimes was tabled for further study in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.


House Bill 1197 by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, would remove the state’s ability to sentence a person to life without possibility of parole for a crime committed when the person was under age 18.


Under the bill, a defendant convicted of capital murder or a Class Y felony offense committed as a juvenile would be eligible for parole after serving 20 years if the defendant did not cause the death of a person or intend to cause the death of a person. If the defendant did cause or intend to cause the death of a person, he or she would be eligible for parole after serving 28 years.


No other reduction under "good time" policies intended to reward good behavior would be considered, Leding said.


Leding said juveniles are not fully capable of understanding all the consequences of their actions.


Opponents expressed concerns about a provision that would make the measure retroactive, extending immediate parole consideration to 113 currently incarcerated inmates.


Larry Jegley, prosecuting attorney for Arkansas’ 6th Judicial District, said retroactive parole eligibility would betray the families of victims whose wishes were weighted heavily by prosecutors when considering sentencing options.


"The victimization is the same regardless of the age of the perpetrator," said Jegley, adding that his opposition was shared by all 28 prosecuting attorneys in the state. "We’re not locking them up because of their age. We’re locking them up because of what they did."


Xavier McElrath-Bey of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network spoke in support of the bill, saying even the worst juvenile offenders are capable of redemption no matter how brutal their crime may be. He offered himself as an example.


McElrath-Bey said he joined a street gang at age 11, and less than two years later was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder, barely comprehending the trouble he was in.


"As a child I didn’t understand the words they spoke in that courtroom," he said. "As a child I didn’t understand death. As a child I couldn’t understand."


While in prison, McElrath-Bey earned a bachelor’s degree with a 4.0 grade point average. He said he now works with at-risk youth and with state legislatures to try to convince lawmakers to look at alternatives to draconian sentencing of juveniles.


After the bill was tabled, Leding said he plans to confer with committee members and see if their concerns can be addressed.


"I’ll be talking with members to better understand how we can amend the bill not just to get out of committee, but onto the House floor for passage," he said. "Nobody connected with this bill is indifferent to the suffering of the victims and the pain of such loss. We’re just trying to find whatever grace and hope there may be in the face of these dark events."