AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas senators acted quickly on Gov. Rick Perry's call to approve a new punishment for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder, voting on Wednesday to require a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after serving at least 40 years.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee met just one day after Perry added the item to the special session's agenda. Lawmakers are also considering political district maps, transportation funding and abortion laws.
Texas previously required a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in capital cases involving 17-year-old offenders, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that such sentences were cruel and unusual punishment for minors.
While Texas law considers 17-year-olds to be adults, the Court considers them minors. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, introduced the bill that would make their mandatory punishment the same as for 14 to 16-year-old offenders, life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
"Texas has historically in capital murder cases had either a life-or-death sentencing scheme and has taken, I would say, a very strong law and order approach to those who have intentionally committed a murder in the course of a rape or robbery," she said.
The committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 23, but only after Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said he would prefer that the Legislature give the courts flexibility in sentencing juveniles. He also pointed to racial disparities in sentencing and suggested that the Court has criticized mandatory sentencing in the past.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez joined with other senators to approve the bill on a 6-0 vote. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
Once signed by Perry, prosecutors have said they will petition the governor to reduce the mandatory life sentences already passed on juveniles to allow for parole, said Shannon Edmonds, government relations director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Huffman said there are approximately 26 people in Texas prisons whom courts sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.
Senate Bill 23: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=831&Bill=SB23