The Texas House on Friday tentatively agreed to a tougher sentence for 17-year-olds who commit capital murder than the Senate has, adding life without parole as an option even though the U.S. Supreme Court has banned that punishment.
By a vote of 110-28, the House agreed with arguments that the revised bill would pass legal muster because it allows judges and juries to consider the suspect’s age and other mitigating factors before it decides on a sentence.
The House version, if it wins final approval in a vote likely to come this weekend, could set up a dispute with the Senate, which earlier insisted life without parole couldn’t be included.
“This bill preserves life without parole for the worst 17-year-old offenders,” said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, who proposed putting the no-parole option back into law. “This bill without my amendment will take life without parole off the table, … when a heinous act occurs, we wouldn’t have the option of saying this person will be taken out of society.”
The Senate-passed version of Senate Bill 23 allows only life with parole — with a minimum sentence of 40 years — for capital murder committed by 17-year-olds.
State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the House sponsor of the measure, said the intent of the bill is to close a “doughnut hole” left in Texas law by a Supreme Court decision a year ago declaring unconstitutional a sentence of life without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder in an Alabama case. That barred Texas’ punishment as well as that of several other states.
During debate, House members argued over whether a sentence of life with parole — a convict couldn’t be eligible for parole until after they served 40 years, meaning 17-year-olds would be age 57 before they could have a chance at release — realistically was any different than a life-without-parole sentence.
Reps. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said they didn’t think even the Senate version would pass constitutional muster and they were certain it wouldn’t with the House changes. The courts have said juveniles sent to prison for long periods must have a reasonable opportunity for release from prison, where life expectancies are shorter than average.
Kolkhorst insisted the bill is constitutional, and she said it is written to cover not only new cases but also those that are pending and those still on appeal.
In Texas, unlike most other states, 17-year-olds are considered adults for committing serious crimes. Supporters of SB 23 said that makes it more complicated to resolve the sentencing issue in capital cases, which prosecutors have said needs to be quickly fixed, so more than two dozen defendants statewide won’t have to go to trial on regular murder charges.
That crime carries a sentence of five to 99 years in prison, with a chance of parole.
Schaefer and Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said they believe the revised bill is legal because it will give the courts the opportunity to consider mitigating evidence in pronouncing a sentence, such as the age of the defendant among other factors.
There were suggestions during debate that the amendment was offered after Gov. Rick Perry’s office was consulted, although Perry aides said they were unaware of that.
Critics argued the change will ensure the new law will be overturned in court, even if the Senate agrees to the amendment.
“We’re attempting to do what the court said we can’t do,” said Dutton, who voted against Schaefer’s amendment. “Texas is not listening.”
Echoed Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who earlier unsuccessfully proposed an alternative of 25 years before a defendant would become eligible for parole, not 40. “The Supreme Court decision says clearly this is not going to work,” he said.
The amended bill must still be approved in a final House vote, expected on Sunday.
There was no immediate indication whether the Senate will go along with the House-passed change. If not, both chambers must then appoint a committee to negotiate a final version of the bill before the special legislative session ends Tuesday.