Members of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee this afternoon considered in a hearing a bill by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, that would impose a mandatory life sentence, with the possibility of parole, for certain juvenile offenders charged with capital murder.
The bill (Senate Bill 23) on its face comports with a Supreme Court opinion that bans life without parole for juvenile offenders charged with capital murder. Instead, Huffman's bill – addressing an issue that Gov. Rick Perry just this week added to the special session call – would require a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 40 calendar years.
The measure concerns Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. If there's no chance of parole for 40 years, isn't that effectively a life sentence, he asked. Moreover, mandating the life sentence takes away any discretion to consider mitigating factors that might not warrant the imposition of such a long sentence.
Huffman disagreed; nothing in her bill steps on the Supremes' 2012 decision banning life-without-parole for juveniles, and historically Texas has sought the maximum punishment for the most serious crimes, even where juveniles are considered. Traditionally, that would mean death (outlawed for juveniles by the Supremes in 2005) or life without parole. Allowing the parole option is a "huge step in a different direction" for Texas, but one that needs to be made. In essence, the high court considered life-without-parole a death sentence, she noted. "By assessing the possibility of parole in 40 years we take a step back from that," she said, making juvenile offenders eligible for release in the "middle stages of their life...in their late Fifties," she said. "I think this is a reasoned option."
Huffman noted as well that her bill merely brings into line with the court rulings the state's scheme for sentencing 17-year-olds. Under Texas law 17 is an adult; per the Supreme Court, 17-year-olds are still juveniles and thus ineligible for both death and life-without-parole. In 2009, lawmakers made life with the possibility of parole after 40 years the mandatory punishment for 14- to 16-year-olds. Huffman's bill would make everyone equal, she said.
Still, Rodriguez wondered why a mitigation approach might not be something the state should consider, going forward.
In addressing the committee – Sens. John Whitmire, D-Houston, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, D- Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, Huffman, and Rodriguez were there for the discussion – Shannon Edmonds with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association said he'd never seen so much criticism for a measure that prosecutors support and that would actually lesson a punishment. Moreover, he said there is no requirement that mitigation be considered – that's a vestige of the death penalty sentencing scheme. Currently, he said, the only thing that is required is that "some" opportunity for release be made available.
Edmonds said his group is planning to work with Perry's office, should the bill pass and become law, to commute to life with parole the sentences of approximately two dozen juveniles sentenced to life without parole under the current scheme.
Hinojosa, whose bill codified life-with-parole for younger offenders, said he would like to see the issue of individualized sentencing for juveniles in capital cases studied over the interim.
Despite concerns expressed by advocates for juvenile justice, religious groups, and Kameron Johnson, Travis County's juvenile public defender, the Committee unanimously passed the measure to the full Senate.
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