Sentencing guidelines changed: 17-year-olds no longer eligible for life without parole
Seventeen-year-olds convicted of capital crimes will now be eligible for parole after 40 years under new sentencing guidelines passed by the Texas House and Senate Thursday.
Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign the bill, which had bipartisan support, into law.
Previously, Texas law allowed 17-year-old defendants to receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a punishment that was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in the case of Miller v. Alabama.
“We had to do something,” said Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), a member of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “Before we acted, the state didn’t have a punishment scheme in place for 17-year-olds. I don’t know if it is the perfect plan going forward, but it will certainly work until the Legislature can come back next session and spend a little more time on it.”
Seventeen year olds will now be treated the same way as other juveniles, a legislative analysis of the bill stated.
“In Texas, the age of majority is 17 years. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling contemplated juveniles as being under the age of 18. Prior to the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, Texas policymakers had already recognized the need to treat juvenile defendants differently than adults, and had established the toughest sentence available for juvenile defendants under Texas law to be life with the possibility of parole in 40 years.”
The bill was supported by the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, but was opposed by several attorneys who testified before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on July 2. Among their concerns was that the bill did not provide any leeway in the sentencing process.
Winston Cochran, Jr., a League City attorney, said he believes the bill to be unconstitutional, but also has problems with the mandatory minimum of 40 years.
“Rather than worrying about the high end of it, it is more important to have two things: the range of punishment and to have the opportunity for defendants to present their mitigating evidence at the time of the trial,” he told the Senate committee.
Lauren Rose from the Juvenile Justice Policy Association also opposed the bill, saying judges and juries need to hear mitigating circumstances before handing down a sentence. This would not be allowed if the bill passed, she told the committee.
Rose also said a 40-year guaranteed sentence is a de facto life sentence in many cases, so there may be constitutional issues if the bill is signed into law.