Friday, January 23, 2009

Too Young for Life: Hinojosa Seeks Sentencing Equity

One of the Legislature’s leading voices on criminal justice issues has decided that teenage killers too young to face execution should also be exempt from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“To me it’s a matter of fairness and consistency,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “If the U.S. Supreme Court said to Texas and all the other states, ‘You cannot give these juvenile offenders the death penalty’ [which the Supreme Court did in 2005], then I believe the state of Texas should not be sending them to prison for life without parole.”

Hinojosa, a long-serving lawmaker who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (and led the House Corrections Committee during his final years as an eight-term state representative), plans to introduce legislation this session that would cap sentences for youthful offenders convicted of capital murder at life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 40 years behind bars.

Such a sentence would be in line with non–capital punishment death sentences handed down before the 2005 Legislature’s enactment of the life-without-parole law. Hinojosa says he decided to push for the new legislation after reading a recent article in the Observer examining the effects of the law (“The Life Penalty,” Nov. 28, 2008).

That law draws no distinction between offenders who commit capital murder before turning 18 and those who kill as adults.

“I think, for someone so young, there is a chance to rehabilitate their lives,” Hinojosa said.

Four under-18 offenders are now serving life-without-parole sentences in Texas. All were sentenced before the 2007 Legislature required the state’s district courts to report demographic information on capital murder cases to the state Office of Court Administration.

When the Nov. 28 Observer went to press, the Office of Court Administration had no information about the ages of the offenders serving life without parole. That information was made available by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in December, after Hinojosa’s office requested a closer examination of life-without-parole cases.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, who advocated the life-without-parole law for six years before it was finally enacted, says he’s open to Hinojosa’s proposed exclusion of youthful offenders, but he wants to see the fine print before committing.

“While I have not seen the language in the proposed bill, I would certainly support an effort to allow juveniles convicted of capital offenses to receive sentences whereby they might be considered for parole after 40 years,” Lucio said. “This was an additional option to life without parole that I also supported for adult offenders. I have faith in Texas jurors and believe juries should be given as many options as possible to be appropriate for the crime.”

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed Lucio’s 2005 legislation into law, is withholding judgment on Hinojosa’s proposal, his office says.

—John Moritz


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