The divide over the issue of juvenile justice was a mere crack in the sidewalk compared with the bridgeless gulf separating lawmakers over abortion, but it nonetheless was wide enough to delay passage of a necessary bill closing a sentencing loophole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder through sessions regular and special. Last week, legislators finally resolved their differences and agreed to mandate a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision forced legislators to make the change to Texas law, which had mandated 17-year-olds be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The mandatory no-parole law was out of step with the court’s declaration that life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional.
The juvenile justice legislation passed by the Texas House and Senate means the state will now punish 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder the same as it punishes convicted 14- to 16-year-olds. All will now face life sentences with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
It’s a fix, but one that will have to be revisited in sessions to come and is open to a constitutional challenge.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in cases from Alabama and Arkansas that state laws mandating that defendants younger than 18 who are convicted of murder be sentenced to life in prison without parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision forced a rewrite to Texas law governing the life-without-parole punishment of 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.
Amendments added late to the legislation and expiring time kept Texas lawmakers from passing the bill during the regular session that ended in May. The abortion issue came between the measure and its passage during the first special session that ended last month.
The Senate’s version of the bill, authored by Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, granted the possibility of parole. State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, sponsored the companion legislation in the House, but numerous members there rejected the possibility of parole.
This week, just as it looked as though differences between the two chambers again might endanger the bill’s passage, members of the House and Senate agreed to settle the issue. Life with the possibility of parole after 40 years won the day Thursday, passing the Senate 30-1 and the House 113-23. Once signed by Gov. Rick Perry, the measure becomes law.
Forty years before parole can be considered — considered, not necessarily approved — is holding young murderers accountable for their heinous crimes and hardly represents softness or leniency. The earliest a 17-year-old convicted of capital murder would experience life outside prison, if granted parole, is at age 57.
How many of these individuals actually will be paroled decades from now is anyone’s guess. And for those who are, what kind of future would await a 57-year-old convicted murderer who has spent his adult life in prison? For this reason, numerous other states offer the possibility of parole after 25 years.
So should rehabilitation come to these young convicts, the rehabilitation will be accompanied by a long wait for release from prison — hardly motivation for turning a young life around.
The sentence passed by the Legislature amounts to a de facto life sentence and by being mandatory it takes away from judges and juries any consideration they might want to give peer pressure or family background when weighing punishment. In its 2012 decision, the Supreme Court didn’t exclude life sentences without parole — there is no argument here that there are some young killers whose horrible crimes earn them life in prison — but the justices did emphasize the importance of considering a juvenile offender’s circumstances before a sentence could be handed down.
We all know there are profound differences between teenagers and adults. State laws that set age limits for driving or for buying alcohol or tobacco, for example, recognize the differences. So should criminal justice. A mandatory sentence fails to consider a teenager’s immaturity, or the circumstances of a nightmarish young life that might include absent, addicted or abusive parents. It also cuts short the possibility of change and rehabilitation.
The change to Texas law was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling and it’s possible the court someday will have to consider when a sentence of life with the possibility of parole decades later has become indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole. Texas legislators have closed a juvenile sentencing loophole, but closer looks at juvenile sentencing likely await them in future sessions.