Lawmakers Ponder Sentencing Fix for Teen Murderers

Instead of answering constitutional questions that sparked the capital murder legislation under consideration in the current special legislative session, some juvenile justice advocates say lawmakers might just make more.

Lawmakers are trying to remedy constitutional problems with current sentencing options for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder, but the proposed solution the Senate approved in a 27-0 vote Friday might have some of the same problems, because it wouldn't leave the judges and juries much discretion in sentencing teenagers convicted of capital crimes.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 23 by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, which would require a life sentence for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder. On Tuesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will discuss SB 23, along with two other measures, including House Bill 72 by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would allow juries and judges to issue sentences ranging from 25 to 99 years.

Advocates say they are concerned that Huffman's bill creates more problems than it solves.

“We still will have automatic sentencing, and it’s going to run afoul of the court’s dictates,” Kameron Johnson, Travis County’s juvenile public defender, told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee during a hearing last week on SB 23.

Gov. Rick Perry expanded the agenda of the special session to include legislation establishing a mandatory sentence of life with parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder. Prosecutors argue they need lawmakers to quickly address sentencing options for those criminals after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that juveniles could not be sentenced to mandatory life without parole.

In Texas, 17-year-olds have faced the same sentencing options as adults convicted of capital murder: the death penalty and life without parole. In 2005, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty for anyone younger than 18, deciding that the less-developed brains of juveniles render them less culpable for their behavior. That left only the possibility of life without parole as punishment for 17-year-olds found guilty of capital crimes.

After last year's Miller v. Alabama ruling, prosecutors said they were left with no sentencing options for 17-year-old killers.

“They need you to do something,” Shannon Edmonds, director of government relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the Senate committee. “The courts need you to do something.”

SB 23, by Huffman, a former prosecutor and criminal court judge, would subject 17-year-olds to the same sentencing options used for 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds certified as adults and convicted of capital murder: mandatory life with the possibility of parole after 40 years. 

“This is a reasoned approach, taking the Miller decision into consideration but still honoring Texas’ historical position on those who have committed the most heinous crime in our state,” Huffman told the Senate commitee.

Edmonds said that the high court's ruling only prohibited life without parole for juveniles and does not prevent states from mandating other sentences as long as the juvenile has a chance to get out of prison.

"The younger they are when they get to prison, the more likely they are to see 40 years and get out," he said.

Johnson and other critics of Huffman’s bill, however, argue that it does little to address the court’s key concerns in the Miller case. The justices indicated their displeasure with the mandatory nature of life without parole sentences in their opinion, writing, “The mandatory penalty schemes at issue here, however, prevent the sentencer from considering youth and from assessing whether the law's harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”

Lauren Rose, juvenile justice policy associate at the nonprofit advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the court’s opinion indicates that juries and judges ought to have more latitude in deciding sentences for youth offenders. They should be able to consider whether factors such as age, home environment, peer pressure or other influences mean that an offender should receive a lesser sentence than life. They should also be able to weigh the greater likelihood of a young person to be rehabilitated, she said.

“Individualized sentencing, I think, is really necessary to address the crux of the Miller decision,” Rose said in an interview.

Additionally, critics of Huffman’s bill say that because the youths would be required to serve at least 40 years before they are eligible for parole, the sentence would practically be the same as life without parole.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who prosecuted juveniles in his previous role as the El Paso county attorney, said he would vote for Huffman’s bill despite his concerns. But he said statistics indicate that the average life expectancy for inmates who enter prison at a young age is much less than for those on the outside.

“This is essentially a life without parole sentence,” Rodriguez said. “The likelihood is that you ain’t getting out.”

Instead of requiring mandatory life with parole sentences for 17-year-olds, Rose and other advocates said lawmakers should view the court’s ruling in Miller as an impetus to give juries and judges more discretion in choosing sentences for all juveniles. That would mean eliminating the mandatory life sentences for 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds, too. That is what Canales' HB 72 would do: allow courts to assess punishments ranging from 25 years to 99 years in prison for convicts younger than 18.

If lawmakers don’t give judges and juries more discretion in juvenile cases, advocates said they expect to see constitutional challenges to the mandatory sentencing requirements.

A preferable option, they say, would be to treat juvenile capital murderers the same way the law treats juveniles convicted of lesser murder charges. In those cases, they can be sentenced from five years to life in prison.

“It’s not to say a life sentence shouldn’t be an option,” Rose said. “It’s just that they should be able to consider other things.”