Ruling May Have Little Effect On State's Juvenile Criminals
By DAYNA WORCHEL
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole will have little effect on most Texas juveniles 16 and under, attorneys said Thursday.
But the ruling means the Texas Legislature may have to tweak the existing law to decide punishment for 17 year olds currently considered to be adults in Texas, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for the Texas District and County Attorney's Association in Austin on Wednesday.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence someone under 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The ruling was 5-4 with Justice Elena Kegan writing the opinion.
Edmonds said that in 2009 the Texas Legislature changed the law so juveniles 16 and under could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court defines anyone under 18 as a juvenile.
"We have to decide what to do with the 17 year olds, who are currently defined as adults in Texas," Edmonds said.
In Texas, currently there are 27 people in prison who were 17 at the time they committed a capital murder and were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, he said. Those 27 people will seek new sentencing hearings soon because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but there is a problem because of the way the current Texas law is written.
"We have nothing to sentence them to," Edmonds said. Life without parole is not retroactive from 2009, he said.
In Texas, the law states that a juvenile (16 and under) convicted of a capital murder will become eligible for parole after 40 years. In 2005, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for people under 17. There were 25 or 30 juveniles in Texas whose sentences had to be commuted to life without parole in 2005.
"If you were 17 (when you committed a capital crime), you got an automatic sentence of life from 2005 on," Edmonds said.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said Smith County has no one in prison who was 17 at the time they committed a capital murder and then received a life without possibility of parole sentence.
"Life without possibility of parole is only a sentencing option in capital murder cases," Bingham said Wednesday.
Edmonds said there are more than 2,000 juveniles across the United States with life without parole sentences.
"Texas is a lot better off than most states," he said.
Gov. Rick Perry's press office on Wednesday issued a statement that said the Governor's Office is working with the Attorney General, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, prosecutors and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to determine "what the appropriate steps will be for Texas going forward."
Jennifer Deen, a Tyler attorney board certified in juvenile law, said the ruling will probably not affect her practice, but said, "It's a wonderful law for those in other states and nationwide."
She said she agrees with a quote Justice Kagan wrote in Monday's opinion that says the court's decision flows straight from "our precedents ... that youth matters for purposes of meting out the law's most serious punishments."