Director, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Texas Governor Rick Perry has signed into law Senate Bill 2, which removes life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for children. Although the new law is a step forward, it does not go far enough in acknowledging the fundamental difference between children and adults and children’s unique capacity for change and rehabilitation.
The law is the state’s effort to comply with last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found that mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional when imposed upon a person who was younger than 18 at the time a crime was committed. Texas eliminated the sentences in 2005 for children who were 16 or younger at the time of a crime, but 17-year-olds were not impacted by the change because 17 is the age of adult jurisdiction in Texas. Under the new law, no one younger than 18 can be sentenced to die in prison.
Under SB2, children convicted of serious crimes in Texas will become eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 40 years. In this way, the new law exchanges one mandatory sentence for another because it does not allow for the individualized sentencing hearings outlined in Miller. According to Miller, key mitigating factors should be considered at sentencing, such as the child’s age, role in the crime, history of abuse and neglect and coercion by an adult co-defendant.
Texas Senator Jose Rodriguez, a former prosecutor for El Paso County, voted against the legislation, which was passed during the second special session of the summer after it failed during the first. Rodriguez said judges and juries should have more flexibility to consider individual circumstances and that children should not be treated the same as adults.
“Juveniles offenders, because of their brain development and other factors are different from other offenders,” he said. The senator also expressed concerns about documented racial disparities that show that blacks and Hispanics receive harsher penalties than whites for the same crimes.
Lawyers for children in Texas have indicated that they plan to challenge the new law.