Updated, 4:36 p.m.:
New sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder are headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk after the Texas House on Thursday approved a bill that will require juries and judges to send those offenders to prison for life with parole eligibility after 40 years.
"This is not the final answer," said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the sponsor of the measure. But she said that the bill would bring Texas in line with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibited mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers. The bill passed with a vote of 113-23.
While the bill, Senate Bill 2 by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, moved quickly through the Senate earlier on Thursday, the House engaged in an hours-long debate led primarily by Democratic lawmakers who said the measure would be unconstitutional. They argued that 40 years in prison before getting a chance for parole was too long for a juvenile and would be tantamount to a sentence of life without parole.
"Youths have a diminished capacity to understand what they are doing," said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, adding that they also have the greatest opportunity for rehabilitation.
They also argued that the measure would not allow juries and judges enough discretion to consider factors that might lessen the potential sentence for a juvenile, including evidence of abuse and neglect.
"This body should quit inserting itself in the jury process," Canales said.
The Texas Senate has approved key special session measures on transportation and sentencing for 17-year-old capital murderers.
In a speedy Thursday morning meeting with little debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2 with a 30-1 vote, allowing Texas judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murderers to life in prison with parole after 40 years. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 unanimously, a measure to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on transportation initiatives.
SB 2, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, alters Texas law to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles last year. The Senate debated the bill for about 20 minutes before voting to suspend the rules and pass it. The measure now heads to the House.
The transportation bill, by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would move nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has said it needs about $4 billion to deal with growth and congestion on state roads. The House, meanwhile, is working on a different version of the transportation bill, raising questions about whether the two chambers can agree before the session ends.
Both the transportation and sentencing measures failed to pass in the first special session because they got trapped behind a Senate filibuster on abortion legislation.
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