Sen. Lucio files life-without-parole bill
AUSTIN, TX--Giving Texas juries a third sentencing option in capital cases remains the goal of Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., as he filed a life-without-parole bill--Senate Bill 60--today. This is the first day of bill pre-filing for the upcoming 79th legislative session.
In Texas, persons convicted of a capital felony offense (e.g., capital murder) can be punished with a sentence of life in prison or they can be sentenced to death. However, under current Texas law, a person sentenced to life in prison may become eligible for parole after serving 40 years. The law can be problematic for juries who do not believe that the defendant should be sentenced to death, but who also oppose parole.
"It is time for Texans to have this option while staying tough on crime," stated Sen. Lucio. "I trust our juries make and will continue to make fair and just decisions. This bill should in no way alter the death penalty, but it will ensure safer streets and justice for the victims of crime and their families.
"I will continue to bring this bill for consideration before the Legislature because I think it's time that Texas juries and prosecutors have as many options as possible when prosecuting dangerous criminals."
"I want to commend Sen. Lucio, for his leadership on this issue. Texas juries deserve the ability to choose from a range of sentences that will allow them to distribute justice fairly and accurately in capital cases," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, who is co-authoring the bill. "I am not opposed to the death penalty in capital cases; I just want to make sure the punishment fits the crime. If a jury has reviewed all the facts and does not think the death penalty is appropriate, but doesn't feel a person should be free to walk the streets, they should have that choice. The option of life without the possibility of parole gives them the ability to make that choice."
This measure would enhance the ability of the state to permanently remove dangerous criminals from Texas' streets by giving our juries a "true" life sentence with no possibility of parole. The legislation also adds a sentencing option of life-without-parole in capital cases where the state does not seek the death penalty.
"We need to give juries the option to impose the punishment they feel to be the most just," Sen. Juan Hinojosa, also a co-author, said. "Right now our Texas juries have two choices -- death or life-with-parole after 40 years. Some cases are not so cut and dried, and in those cases, life-without-parole might be a better option."
Sen. Lucio is also addressing the concern that this option would create a new class of prisoners who would be prone to more violence with no hope of parole. "On the contrary," he said, "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."
He also cited a 15-year study conducted in Missouri comparing the institutional violence rates of 323 life-without-parole inmates with 232 life-with-parole inmates that found that the life-without-parole inmates were not more dangerous or violent than the other inmates.
Prison administrators and experts from other states with this sentencing option will be invited to testify during the bill process.
"Texas jurors should be offered every option when making one of the most important decisions of our judicial system," said Sen. Lucio. "This bill is tough on crime because it would help ensure our state's goal that violent criminals, who prove to be a future danger to society, are never released."
Sen. Lucio added, "This measure does not in any way replace the death penalty, nor does it run against the state's standards of law and order. When capital cases do not result in a death penalty, families of victims may receive no closure, knowing that parole is a possibility."
"The legislation would provide every victim's family closure in that they won't have to relive the pain through the parole process," explained the bill's author. "These families, who have already suffered enough, would have the certainty that the murderer will never get out of prison."
Currently 46 states offer life-without-parole as a sentencing option. Moreover, 35 of the 38 states that allow the death penalty offer life-without-parole as a sentencing option.
"SB 60 would help guide a jury's deliberations and ensure that they have all the tools they need to render the important decision that they must unanimously make," said Sen. Lucio. "Since each defendant and each crime is unique, jurors should be equipped with all available options in order to select which punishment appropriately fits the crime, without weakening our penal system."
The proposed law in no way impedes prosecutors from seeking the death penalty nor does it prevent judges from asking the same questions they currently ask jurors in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial. The two questions are: 1) Is this defendant a future danger to society? and 2) Are there mitigating factors present to spare the defendant's life? A mitigating circumstance, such as a defendant's background and character, is evidence that would permit a juror to determine that a death sentence is not necessary.
Under the proposed bill, if the jury answers yes to the first question, that the defendant is a future danger, and no to the second, that there are no mitigating factors that warrant a lesser sentence, then the judge will sentence the defendant to death.
The only change to current law is that a person will receive life-without-parole if the jury answers yes to future dangerousness and finds or is unable to decide whether there are mitigating circumstances. Presently, if a jury answers yes to future dangerousness and finds or is unable to decide whether there are mitigating circumstances, the defendant automatically receives life as we know it today, with eligibility for parole in 40 years.
Note: Chronological order of life-without-parole bills by Senator Lucio.
1999 -Senate Bill 38 - No action taken.
2001- Senate Bill 85 - Passed the Senate but lacked eight votes to pass the House.
2003- Senate Bill 348 - Lacked necessary two-thirds vote to suspend intent rule in Senate.
Staff member handling legislation is Mr. Ian Randolph, legislative director.