Reentry and Integration Division
That liberal legislature ... in Texas
By Rick Casey, Staff Writer
May 20, 2010, 9:22 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday barred sentences of life without parole for juveniles who committed crimes other than murder. The vote was 5-4.
This will surprise a lot of Texans — and even more outsiders — but a year ago the Texas Legislature went the Supreme Court one farther.
It barred sentences of life without parole for juveniles who commit capital murder.
And the vote wasn't even as close as the Supreme Court's.
The Senate passed the bill 30-1. The House passed it 124-21, a ratio of 6-1.
And Gov. Rick Perry signed it.
This is a rare case of the U.S. Supreme Court following Texas, not vice-versa.
The Supreme Court gave hope to 129 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, but not a single one was in Texas. In Texas, life without parole is only given in capital murder cases.
We do have 20 juvenile offenders serving life without parole for capital murders, who were saved when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled, 5-4, that the death penalty could not be given to those who were under 18 when they committed a crime. Of the 20, three were 15 when they committed capital murder. Four were 16 and the rest 17.
Under a Texas law that covered all capital murders, the only punishment available other than death was life without parole. Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) carried last year's bill, arguing that science had shown that teenagers were not mentally and emotionally fully developed and should not be classified as being beyond rehabilitation.
The law is not exactly lenient. It requires that convicts serve a full 40 years, with no reduction for good behavior, before they are even eligible for parole. What's more, it doesn't help those 20 already in prison, since it applies only to crimes committed after last Sept. 1.
The bill made its way through a very difficult legislative session with surprising ease. At a Senate committee hearing it was supported not only by the ACLU, but by Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, one of the state's most aggressive prosecutors who has made a name for himself as the controversial new chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
“I was not a big supporter of life without parole,” Bradley testified. “I think even people who commit some of the most horrible crimes need an incentive to behave (in prison) and to rehabilitate and develop over a long period of time. I think that applies even greater when that person is a juvenile.”
Harris DA opposed it
At that hearing, only one person signed up as opposing the bill. He was Kevin Keating, an assistant district attorney and legislative liaison for the Harris County DA's office. Keating chose not to testify however.
Asked why Harris County took that position, DA Pat Lykos' General Counsel John Barnhill said Thursday, “The district attorney believed that in some rare cases, the capital murders were extreme enough and the juvenile offenders dangerous enough that reasonable people could conclude that life without parole was an appropriate response to protect the community.”
The only senator to vote against the bill was Houston Republican Joan Huffman, a former criminal district court judge.
She had passed an amendment to the Senate bill that would have offered juries the choice of life with or without the possibility of parole. She voted against the bill after the House stripped her amendment.
Outside the norms
In his dissent to the Supreme Court's ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote that life without parole “would not have offended the standards that prevailed at the founding” of our nation, and we are bound by the standards. At that time, as Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out, a 7-year-old could be sentenced to death for stealing $50.
The majority, however, continued a long-standing practice of applying evolving societal norms.
Defense lawyers are already talking about asking the Supreme Court to bar life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
It's not hard to imagine them arguing that if the Texas Legislature bans it, then it must be outside of societal norms.