Special session will decide maximum sentence for juveniles

Published: Jun. 13, 2013 at 9:32 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 14, 2013 at 12:05 PM CDT
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Amarillo, TX - Sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is unconstitutional, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.  And now Texas lawmakers are deciding how to change state law to abide by federal law.

Last year, SCOTUS ruled life without parole for someone under the age of 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and is therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

So Texas, along with several other states, is tweaking its own statutes to stay within federal guidelines.  One of the items on the table in Austin in this year's special session is Senate Bill 23, which would set the maximum sentence for a juvenile offender at life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

Under current state law, minors convicted of a capital offense can be sentenced to life in prison, but must be eligible for parole.  But in Texas, 17 year-olds can be tried as adults, which creates a legal gray area for prosecutors.

"We need a punishment range, so obviously the statute is important for us to have," explains 47th District Attorney Randall Sims.  "The U.S. Supreme Court, several years ago now, also ruled that we could not execute a 17 year-old. So they've limited the punishments on 17 year-olds here twice now."

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the bill, and it's scheduled to be heard by the full senate tomorrow.

If you'd like to see an analysis of the bill or see what else is on the agenda in this year's special session, you'll find that  at the links attached to this story.