Life Without Parole Would Respond to Public Demand in Texas
This legislative session, I have introduced Senate Bill 348, a bill that would add life without parole as a sentencing option in all capital punishment cases, including those cases where the prosecution does not seek the death penalty. Currently, juries can only choose between two optionsthe death penalty and life in prison with the possibility of parole in 40 years. Thus, we are left without a true life sentence in our state.
I am proposing this legislation not as an opponent of the death penalty, but as a supporter of jury options. In fact, I believe in the need for the death penalty in our state. There are some crimes where justice can only be served by imposing this most severe of penalties. However, I also believe in giving our Texas juries options when it comes to making one of the most important decisions we as citizens are called upon to make.
The addition of life without parole is not only about showing respect for our juries, it is also a tough on crime measure that will allow jurors to permanently remove dangerous criminals from our streets. By imposing a life without parole sentence, we can guarantee that our neighborhoods will be safe from the most violent offenders. Moreover, the sentence helps provide a victims family with closure, as they will never have to relive their pain through the parole process and can be assured that the offender will never re-enter society again.
There are some opponents that argue that by creating this new sentence, our prison system will be dealing with a new type of prisoner that will be more violent and have less of an incentive to behave. However, research and experience proves the contrary. Research conducted in the Missouri Department of Corrections, for instance, found that life without parole inmates were not more violent than life with parole inmates when their behavior was studied over a 15-year period of confinement. Moreover, I have been informed by several present and former prison administrators throughout the nation that those offenders serving life without parole sentences presented no extraordinary disciplinary or management problems as compared to other offenders.
Presently, 46 other states have life without parole as a sentencing option, making Texas one of only four states in the nation without this option. It is time to realize the value of providing this sentence in Texas. We must also listen to the will of the people. A recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 72 percent of Texans support changing the law to allow life in prison without parole. The demand for this option should not and cannot be ignored.
Other opponents will argue that this option will serve to weaken the death penalty in our state. I argue that it will not. The death penalty is still administered in states that have a life without parole sentence. It is also important to mention that 80 percent of Texans polled would still favor the death penalty if they knew that a person convicted of capital murder would be given a true life sentence without parole. Ultimately, I believe we should trust our juries and provide them with options that will allow them to choose the most appropriate punishment for the offender. Our Texas juries deserve this respect.
Simply put, life without parole is an appropriate punishment for certain crimes. While it may be unlikely under current law that a capital felon will ever be released after serving 40 years, it does not diminish the fact that the law essentially says that even though someone committed a heinous crime, this person may have the opportunity to rejoin society again. Regardless of the statistical likelihood of ever being released, laws establish standards for punishment.
This sentence also brings more credibility to the death penalty procedure in our state. Over the years, the capital punishment system in Texas has been routinely criticized. By providing jurors with a sentencing option that will remove an offenders eligibility for parole, we are ultimately improving the integrity of our process.
A life without parole sentencing option is about strengthening our judicial system by empowering juries with another tool to ensure justice for victims and their families in the sentencing process. Sometimes, justice can only be achieved with a life without parole sentence, and Texans should have the ability to impose this punishment.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, Under the character of jurors the people exercise in person the greatest portion of the judiciary powers. Our juries are one of the most important cornerstones of our democracy. We should trust in them, and when we are able, provide them with all the possible means to ensure that justice will be served.
NOTE: Senate Bill 348-- the Life Without Parole Bill--passed out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on April 2, 2003. It will now go to the full Senate for consideration.