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New Parole Rules Sought in Cases That Involved Injury to a Child

Advocates in Houston are hoping to make parole more difficult for anyone convicted of injuring a child. They plan to pursue legislation to allow the Board of Pardons and Paroles to deny reviews of parole eligibility for up to five years in these cases.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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When Laurie Thompson read a letter about the parole eligibility of the woman in prison for the death of Thompson’s granddaughter, she thought the review date — two years into a 20-year sentence — was a typo. “We had been reassured that the perpetrators of this crime would have no hope of being released in the near future,” Thompson said.

In 2009, Thompson’s granddaughter, 4-year-old Emma Thompson, was beaten to death after being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, Lucas Coe. A jury convicted Emma’s mother, Abigail Young, of “reckless endangerment of child by omission,” and sentenced her to 20 years. Young became eligible for parole after two years and will be automatically reviewed again every year that she is in prison.

“We really have no relief,” Thompson said. "We have to revisit the details of the crime every time. It seems like we've been given a 20-year sentence."

As a result of Young’s parole eligibility, Thompson and other victims advocates are pursuing legislation that would end automatic yearly parole reviews in cases where the victim is a child.

Emma’s death and the subsequent trial in the case attracted a flurry of news coverage in Houston, and Thompson became the family’s spokeswoman, delivering a victim impact statement to the court.

Thompson, who teaches theology at a Catholic high school in Houston, said that as she met other victims through organizations like Parents of Murdered Children, she saw that other families had to worry every year about parole eligibility, and would have to write letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. "We realized that the families of victims are being victimized again and again,” she said. “We have to revisit the details of the crime. It seems like we've been given a 20-year sentence.”

To pursue the legislation, Thompson is joining with Andy Kahan, victim advocate for the city of Houston. Kahan said the goal of their effort is to give the parole board discretion to choose to hold off from reviewing these cases for up to five years. There is already a list of offenses in this category, including several other offenses against children, for which the board can choose to wait up to five years before reviewing a case again. Kahan and Thompson simply want to add all degrees of injury to a child to this list. Under such a change, Young could be denied parole review for up to five years.

“I've had too many parents over the last few months who are stunned, dumbfounded to find out that they'll have to deal with this scenario every single year until [the offenders are] released,” Kahan said. “The family will be going through the parole process like a never-ending groundhog day movie. They’ll never get a chance to heal.”

Thompson says she and Kahan have been contacting legislators to see who would be interested in authoring the bill, which would be called Emma's Law, and she plans to work with lawmakers during the 2013 legislative session.

Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said legislation of this kind is "deceptive," and serves as "a backdoor way to keep these guys in prison" even if they have compelling reasons to be given parole. He explained that a more transparent way to go about reforming the parole system would be to simply to limit how often certain offenders would be eligible for parole, as opposed to allowing the board discretion in each case.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has been noted often for its secrecy, though a report released in August suggested that the overall number inmates granted parole has been on the rise over the last 10 years.

The board doesn’t take a position on the parole proposal, said spokesman Harold Battson, though he said that less frequent parole reviews would create less work for the members of the board, which he said is "simply here to serve what the Legislature enacts as law."

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that longer periods between parole reviews might give inmates like Young more time to show good behavior and improve their chances of getting released earlier. “My theory is if they don't have the time to see that the person hasn't harmed anyone," he said, "they are more likely to tend to the side of not granting parole."

Nevertheless, Levin, who has advocated for parole reform in the past, said, “We probably need to look at the issue more broadly,” because it “seems odd” that the board looks at what offense was committed, in this case injury to a child, every time. The offense “doesn’t change over time,” he said, but still serves as a reason for denying parole, and this would seem to be a waste of time for the board.

“You could imagine another system where when they [the board] come in sets a presumptive parole date,” he said, “and subsequent reviews would only look at what progress they've made in prison.”

“If we're going to keep the system we have,” Levin said, “it's fine for the board to have discretion” about how often to review individuals, the same point that Kahan makes. Kahan has said that more discretion gives the board “more tools to utilize in cases that one would easily consider to be some of the most egregious types of offenders.”

Thompson will be working with lawmakers early next year. She said that through her work, she has found an ability to revisit the details of the crime for the purpose of advocacy, but that there are many “dark days” in between. "I'm not sure why I have the ability to speak about this the way that I do,” she said. “The emotion and impact of it is when I get off the phone.”  

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