Life-Without-Parole Not Precursor to Violence
My repeated efforts to widen sentencing options in this state have been continually rebuffed, even as more Texans support allowing jurors to impose sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Recent polls show that the life without parole option is more popular with Texas residents than it is with their elected representatives.
For the past three regular sessions, I have filed legislation that would add a "true" life-without- parole sentencing option in Texas, only to see the bills fail.
As it stands today, in capital cases, Texas juries have two options. They can either sentence the offender to death or to life in prison. However, life in prison presently means that the defendant can become eligible for parole after serving 40 years. Texas has no true life-without- parole sentence.
One of the greatest challenges has been the argument by some legislators and prosecutors that adding this option would result in more violent prisoners--that with no hope for parole, this new class of inmates will have little incentive to behave.
However, there is support for the legislation from other legislators, prosecutors, and most importantly, the general public. In fact, poll results from February 2003 indicate that 72 percent of Texans support changing the law to allow life in prison without parole. Why, then, has this sentencing option not become law?
Although difficult to change perception, this coming session I intend to attempt that once again by refiling this bill. I will work to ensure that the entire Legislature is fully informed of a 15-year study conducted in Missouri that compared the institutional violence rates of 323 life-without-parole inmates with 232 life-with-parole inmates and found that the life-without-parole inmates were not more dangerous or violent than the other inmates. They will all have the opportunity to review other research indicating that, generally, as inmates get older in prison, their propensity for violent or dangerous behavior decreases.
I plan to invite prison administrators in other states with a life without parole sentencing option to testify during the bill process. They have informed me that this type of prisoner presented no extraordinary disciplinary problems as compared to other offenders. Instead, it makes more sense that these inmates would want to avoid behavior that would lead to more punishment. Since they will remain incarcerated for the rest of their lives, life without parole inmates can only look forward to the awarding of privileges (such as recreation and visitation)--key motivators to good behavior.
A more compelling argument that these inmates pose no greater disciplinary problems is that 47 other states in the nation have a life-without-parole sentencing option. Texas is one of only three states without this sentence. And if the other states are capable of handling these prisoners, Texas should also.
I can imagine the arduous process that jurors must undertake when deciding the outcome of a particular case. That process becomes even more difficult during the sentencing phase, as jurors must determine the most appropriate punishment.
Oftentimes, jurors are conflicted about whether to sentence dangerous offenders with mental retardation or a mental illness to death, yet they must do so because there is no assurance that the defendant will remain behind bars.
Last May, Governor Rick Perry cited the lack of a life-without-parole sentencing option in his decision not to commute the death sentence of Kelsey Patterson (who had a lengthy history of mental illness), despite the Board of Pardons and Paroles' 5-1 recommendation to commute his sentence to life in prison. In making this decision, Governor Perry stated, "Texas has no life-without-parole sentencing option, and no one can guarantee this defendant would never be freed to commit other crimes were his sentence commuted."
A life-without-parole sentencing option will help ensure that these offenders will not have the potential to pose a danger to the public again.
Texas juries deserve this option. Our death penalty process has been routinely criticized by others throughout the nation and world. And now is the time to bring more integrity to the process.
Like many Texans, I support the death penalty. Frankly, there are some crimes where justice can only be served by such a sentence. However, I also believe in giving Texas juries all of the available tools when making these decisions. Governor Perry is correct--we do not have a life-without-parole sentencing option in our state. Now is the time to address this matter, and I look forward to the Governor's and Legislature's support next session in giving our juries this sentencing option.
As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 and Weslaco at 956-968-9927.