AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas House panel endorsed a bill Wednesday to create a new punishment for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to allow the possibility of parole after 40 years.
The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed the bill on a 7-2 vote and sent it to the full House, which is expected to vote before the end of the 30-day special session next week. The committee took up the measure after the Senate unanimously voted for it last Friday.
Currently, a 17-year-old convicted of capital murder in Texas is sentenced to life in prison without parole. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such punishment is cruel and unusual, and unconstitutional.
Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said state courts should have an array of options when sentencing a 17-year-old convicted of capital murder. After proposing a substitute bill with different punishments he withdrew it after his Republican colleagues called for the Senate-approved bill instead.
After approving the Senate bill, lawmakers clarified that they would amend it on the House floor to include harsher sentences such as life without parole.
Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said that such punishment should be kept as an option "especially for those heinous crimes." That sentiment was echoed by other lawmakers as well, saying they would make the Senate bill even tougher.
"I'm voting aye, with the understanding that we are going to put life without parole back on the table...that would allow the most heinous criminals to be put away forever," said Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler. "But also to satisfy Supreme Court concerns."
State prosecutors had asked Gov. Rick Perry to add the topic to the session in order to complete current cases dealing with 17-year-olds who could be convicted of capital murder. But in order to punish those 17-years-olds, Texas needs to change its law in accordance to the Court's ruling.