A House panel Monday unanimously approved a measure that would allow defendants younger than 18 to receive life sentences and be eligible for parole after 40 years. The measure was approved in the Senate in March and passed through the House committee without discussion.
Prosecutors argue they need Senate Bill 187, by Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, because currently 17-year-olds who commit capital murder cannot be charged with that crime. There is a gap between Texas law and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits a life without parole sentence for those younger than 18.
"This bill would keep us in line with what has been handed down by the Supreme Court," Huffman said in March.
Opponents of the measure, though, argue that the mandatory sentence does not consider the many influences that lead children to commit serious crimes. They argue that judges should be given discretion to adjust sentences based on the circumstances of the crime.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case of Miller v. Alabama that anyone under 18 could not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In that case, 14-year-old Evan Miller and a friend had taken drugs and then beat his neighbor and set fire to his trailer. The neighbor died in the blaze, and Miller was convicted of murder. Alabama laws mandated that he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The nation's highest court had already decided in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case that the death penalty could not be assigned to anyone under 18.
Writing for the majority in the Miller decision, Justice Elena Kagan explained that youths were not as culpable for their crimes, no matter how severe or brutal.
"Their 'lack of maturity' and ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking," Kagan wrote.
In Texas, though, 17-year-olds are considered adults when they are tried for capital murder. The Miller ruling means that prosecutors cannot charge a 17-year-old with capital murder, because there is no punishment for them, explained Justin Wood, a Harris County prosecutor. The only sentences now available for the charge of capital murder are the death penalty or life without parole.
"We have to go back and prosecute them for the underlying offense, whether murder or aggravated robbery, or whatever else," he said, noting that there are currently cases in which 17-year-old defendants are waiting in jail as prosecutors await the Legislature's decision on punishment for them.
Lauren Rose, a juvenile justice policy analyst at Texans Care for Children, said the Miller decision should be interpreted as a bar on any mandatory sentences for young people. Judges making decisions about sentencing "need to take into account all of these different factors," Rose said. "The brain is not fully developed until 25. The trigger mechanism of 'Oh, I shouldn't be doing this' isn't always there."
Rose's concerns were shared by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who told Huffman at a Senate committee meeting in March: "I understand what you're trying to do, but does this consider the level of maturity of a particular juvenile? The Supreme Court acknowledged there might be a need to do that."
Huffman said that since the Supreme Court had never taken issue with parole after 40 years for 14- to 16-year-old defendants, which is currently permissible in Texas, the new law would be no different.
The bill now heads to the House floor.