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Texas House Lawmakers Debate Youth Punishment

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File photo of a prison cell. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a prison cell. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Members of a key Texas House panel said Tuesday they feel conflicted about approving proposed new punishments for 17-year-olds who are convicted of capital murder with the mandatory possibility of parole after 40 years in prison.

With the end of the special legislative session looming, such reservations may cause problems at crunch time.

Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, said she’s “really torn here because we do only have eight days” to pass legislation. Gov. Rick Perry summoned lawmakers back to work immediately after the regular session ended May 27, and added passing new punishments for convicted 17-year-old murders to their workload.

But the special session is only 30 days long and ends early next week, whether or not lawmakers accomplish what the governor wants.

Currently, a 17-year-old convicted of capital murder in Texas is sentenced to life in prison without parole. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such a sentence is unconstitutional for minors. On Friday, the Senate passed a bill authorizing the new punishments.

State prosecutors have urged the Legislature to pass the Senate bill in order to close out current cases dealing with 17-year-olds who could be convicted of capital murder. To get Texas law in-line with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Legislature needs to change state law.

“We have this gap,” Lance Long, a prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office, told members of the House Jurisprudence Committee. “So we’re in limbo right now with 17-year-olds who commit capital murder.”

Long emphasized that the simplest and quickest fix is for the state to handle 17-year-olds the same way it deals with 14- to 16-year-olds convicted of capital murder. Those teen offenders face sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

The committee must pass the proposed punishments before they can be considered by the full House. Chairman Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said the committee should vote on them early Wednesday, though it wasn’t clear they would pass.

But Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said that the Senate-approved bill is a short-term solution to a broader problem. “Closing the gap doesn’t solve the problem to me,” Canelas said. “It sounds like we have a problem with the law altogether.”

He pointed out that if an inmate’s life expectancy if fewer than 40 years when incarcerated, then having wait four decades before being eligible for parole could be, in essence, life in prison.

But because lawmakers can only work on issues Perry direct them to during the special session, a major overhaul couldn’t be proposed and approved until the next regular session in 2015. If the Legislature fails to pass the proposed law, however, 17-year-olds accused of capital murder will be charged with lesser crimes such as felony murder, Long said. That means teen offenders could serve less time if they weren’t convicted of capital murder.

Still, Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin told the committee that the state already has the tools to appropriately punish a 17-year-old who commits murder. He pointed out that a jury could sentence a teen to up to 99 years in jail for murder.

“We have not restricted the prosecutors’ tools,” Bunin said. But “right now they want a sledgehammer.”

Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam challenged the notion that prosecutors won’t be able to do their jobs if the Legislature doesn’t change the law.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the DA’s assertion that it would be a grave injustice to pass no legislation this time,” Burnam said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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