Jurors in capital cases would have the option of sentencing a murderer to prison for life with no hope for parole if a measure passed by the Senate Thursday is signed into law. SB 60, by Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, would replace the current option of life with possibility of parole in 40. Lucio drafted the bill to give jurors the choice between the death penalty, life without parole, or life with possibility of parole in 40 years. An amendment by Senator Steve Ogden of Bryan eliminated the option of life with parole.
This is the fourth session that Lucio has brought a life-without-parole bill before the Senate. During the 77th Legislature, the Senate passed a similar measure, but the bill died in the House. This issue is important to Lucio because he wants jurors and families to know that if they sentence a murderer to life in prison, he or she will never get out. "I've pushed so hard over the years to ensure there's certainty and closure for the families of victims after these cases are terminated," said Lucio. Lucio added that he thinks SB 60 will receive a hearing in a House committee early next week.
Wednesday, Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, held a hearing to listen to suggestions about how the state's probation system can be improved. Whitmire said he is particularly worried about the thousands of probations that are revoked every year based on technical violations. "What I'm primarily concerned with is making probation work better," said Whitmire. "I have a strong feeling that we have way too many revocations due to technical [violations]. I know judges need other options if we're going to ask that they not immediately revoke someone."
One of these options the committee discussed was the implementation of a community-based rehabilitation program. Under this program, technical violators of probation would be sent to a community rehabilitation center, where they would be allowed to work during the day but are locked down at night. These centers would focus on education and rehabilitation, rather than punishment. The Senate Finance appropriations bill set aside funds for 500 community rehabilitation beds following the success of pilot programs around the state.
Another option would be to shorten probation terms and to use incentives, rather than penalties, to encourage compliance. Whitmire argued that if a person on a ten-year probation sentence demonstrates good behavior for five years, that the sentence should be reduced as a reward to that probationer. He also cited a study that demonstrates that behavior during the first three years of probation is indicative of behavior over the entire term of probation. If a person shows complete compliance with the terms of probation for three years, what benefit is there to requiring the person to serve out the remainder of their sentence, asked Whitmire.
The purpose of this committee was to take input from judges, corrections officials, and private citizens to improve pending legislation and perhaps spark ideas for new laws. Similar hearings will likely be held during the rest of session, and possibly into the interim.
Monday, the Senate passed a measure to help soldiers stay out of debt. SB 1479, by El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh, would take steps to prevent payday lenders from preying on soldiers based in Texas. Shapleigh said that payday lenders prefer to lend to soldiers because they have a regular paycheck, are almost never laid off, and because the lender can appeal to a commanding officer to force payment. Compounded with the fact that many soldiers are young and financially inexperienced, soldiers can find themselves in deep debt with large interest payments. "I believe companies that would prey on soldiers are abhorrent," said Shapleigh. "What we're trying to do is have soldiers make informed decisions and protect them from abuse."
SB 1479 would help soldiers by requiring payday lenders to clearly disclose all terms of a loan made to a soldier, and would prohibit lenders from making appeals to commanding officers for payment. It would also forbid lenders from demanding collections of family members of a deployed soldier, and would disallow garnishing of soldiers' paychecks.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 18, at 1:30 p.m.