Texas House, Senate to debate juvenile justice bill Thursday

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - The Texas House and Senate will each take up a juvenile justice bill Thursday that would change how 17-year-olds who are convicted of capital crimes are sentenced.

Right now, people who are convicted of a capital offense that was committed at the age of 17 are only eligible for two sentences under Texas law - death or the possibility of life without parole.

But a Supreme Court decision last year said that only allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and because of that decision, the Texas law needs to be changed.

As the House and Senate bills are written right now, 17-year-olds convicted of capital crimes where the death penalty isn't being sought would have the possibility of a life sentence with or without parole.

The House and Senate will each debate their version of the bill Thursday and work out any amendments they want to add.

They were very close to passing the legislation during the first special session in June, but the Texas Senate ran out of time at the end of the session.

The Senate had passed their version of the bill, but when the House debated their version, they added a couple of amendments. Those amendments were required by state law to be approved by the Senate before the bill became law.

The Senate was set to debate those changes on the last day of the special session, but they took up a major abortion bill first. That bill was filibustered by State Senator Wendy Davis, and the session expired before the juvenile justice bill was able to be taken up.

The change to the law has to be enacted because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision.

In a 5 to 4 decision last year in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for people who are under the age of 18 when their crime is committed violates the 8th Amendment's clause that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court did not say in the Miller decision that 17-year-olds couldn't be given a mandatory life sentence - they just said that factors like a juvenile's age and family circumstance have to be given consideration by a court before a sentence is determined.

Right now, Texas's law gives 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds convicted of capital crimes the possibility of life with parole after they serve 40 years of their sentence.

But under current law, 17-year-olds convicted of capital crimes can only be sentenced to death or to mandatory life sentences, and the juvenile justice law has to be rewritten to reflect the Supreme Court's ruling.

The Senate is expected to start debating the bill at 9 a.m. The House will begin their deliberations at 2 p.m.

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