Decision on Juvenile Sentences Stirs Questions in Texas

Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that murderers under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to mandatory life in prison with no possibility of parole may not change Texas law much, but it could leave some work for state lawmakers.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Twenty-eight states currently allow mandatory life without parole for juveniles and will now have to change their laws to accommodate the rulings. The decision still allows for such sentences, but judges must now consider the age of the convicted individual.

Texas already abolished mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2009. But the Texas law stipulated that no one under the age of 17 could receive the sentence.

There are currently 27 individuals incarcerated in Texas who were sentenced to life without parole before they were 18. All 27 were convicted of capital murder, and all but two are male. Seventeen of them were 17 years old at the time of their offense. The others were 16 or younger. Nationwide, 2,300 individuals are serving life without parole sentences for murders committed before they were 18. Only about 79 were under the age of 14. Ninety percent of them are serving mandatory life sentences.

According to Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, the fate of those juvenile Texans remains unclear.

“I don’t know what the governor is going to do,” Edmonds said. “All the decision said was you can’t have mandatory life sentences.”

After the Supreme Court in 2005 decided that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, Gov. Rick Perry commuted the sentences for 28 17-year-olds on death row. All 28 were given life sentences with the possibility of parole in 40 years.

After Monday's ruling, the state is still determining what action to take. “The Governor’s Office is working with the Attorney General, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, prosecutors and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to determine how many individuals may be affected by this ruling and what the appropriate steps will be for Texas going forward,” Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in a statement.

Jason Clark of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said his office began preparing soon after the court’s announcement, and identified the 27 convicts in anticipation of any requests from the attorney general or governor’s offices.

The Texas attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Advocacy groups on Monday praised the court's decision. “It is laudable that the Supreme Court has recognized the fundamental unfairness of life without parole for juveniles,” said Kathryn Kase, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates. “Children are different. They are not little adults.”

But Kase said commuting and resentencing the 27 juvenile murderers in Texas would conflict with the intent of the court’s decision.

“We can’t just look at the act and say, this merits a certain punishment,” Kase said. “No juvenile should be stuck there by some procedural technicality.”

Kase said she supports new sentencing hearings that consider the mitigating circumstances for all of the juvenile murderers.

Scott Medlock, the Texas Civil Rights Project's director of prisoner rights, called the court's decision a “step in the right direction.”

“For the law to begin tracking the science is a very positive sign,” said Medlock, who added that medical and psychological research shows that people's brains and decision-making abilities can continue to change until their mid-20s. To force life sentences on young people is a poor use of state resources and a failure of the justice system, he said.

“People tend to age of out crime,” he said.

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