Life Without Parole Bill Approved by Senate Criminal Justice Committee
AUSTIN, TX--The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted four to two (one absent) for the Life Without Parole Bill today (Senate Bill 60) by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. that will give Texas juries a third sentencing option in capital murder cases.
"My friends," Sen. Lucio told the Committee, "the sentence of life without parole is not some novel, untested idea. The availability of life without parole is the norm in our criminal justice system."
Currently 47 states offer life without parole as a sentencing option. Moreover, 36 of the 38 states that allow the death penalty offer life without parole as a sentencing option. Only Alaska and New Mexico stand with Texas in not having this option available. (LWOP is under legislative consideration in New Mexico.)
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.
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.
Sen. Lucio, referring to a 2004 Scripps-Howard Texas Poll showing that 78 percent of the respondents favor life without parole, noted, "Do not think this comes at the cost of support for the death penalty in Texas. The same Texas Poll shows that support for the death penalty actually increases slightly with the additional option of life without parole."
The bill also addresses the recent Supreme Court ruling that juveniles found guilty of capital murder cannot receive the death penalty. Sen. Lucio said, "With the law as it is right now, this means that young persons who commit these crimes are guaranteed to be eligible for parole when they reach my age. With the law as it is right now, these offenders who pose a grave risk to the safety of us all can now walk the streets of our communities again, so life without parole is even more essential now for Texas."
Regarding concerns raised about the behavior of inmates incarcerated for life, Sen. Lucio 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.
"These inmates can only look forward to the awarding of privileges (such as recreation and visitation)--key motivators to good behavior," explained Sen. Lucio.
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.
"This is all about certainty. Life without parole is the only option in a capital case that provides certainty for the families of victims," Sen. Lucio told the Committee. "It is certain punishment; there are no concerns about a future Supreme Court ruling abolishing the death penalty, and there are no concerns about parole hearings or early release--it is final, definitive and certain!"
He also said, "Members, life without parole is the norm across this country; Texans want it, jurors want it, and victims deserve it! And most importantly, Senate Bill 60 is for the victims and their families."
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.
2005-Sentate Bill 60 - Passed in the Criminal Justice Committee.