Victims' rights advocates concerned about new parole bill

HOUSTON – Victims’ rights advocates plan to fight a recently filed bill that could shorten the time violent felons are required to remain in prison before being eligible for parole. The bill was filed by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Dist. 141).

“Could essentially cut their time served in half to be eligible for release,” said Crime Stoppers’ Andy Kahan.

Kahan said the bill would allow violent offenders to accrue so-called “good time.” Essentially, a prisoner can shorten the amount of time they are required to remain behind bars before being eligible for parole by demonstrating good behavior in prison. Currently, violent offenders must serve at least half of their prison sentence before becoming parole eligible. Texas stopped violent offenders from accruing “good time” in the late 90s.

Kahan said his other concern is Thompson’s bill can be applied retroactively. Kahan said when he and other victim advocates asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the number of violent offenders who would be eligible for parole if the bill passes, he was told 23,777. Kahan said the information from TDCJ showed 5,327 of those offenders are serving time for murder, 1,598 for sexual assault and 4,668 for sexual assault of a child.

The information is “sending victim's families, for the most part, in an obvious upheaval,” Kahan said.

Thompson has not yet responded to KPRC’s request for comment on the measure. Kahan said that in his discussion with members of Thompson’s staff, he was told the bill would give inmates convicted of violent crimes the same chance of demonstrating rehabilitation as offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes.

“Basically, we agreed to disagree,” Kahan said.

Kahan said many family members of crime victims rely on violent felons serving at least half of their prison sentence behind bars when agreeing with prosecutors to move forward with plea deals.

“Basically, what you're trying to do is remove that contractual agreement that everyone signed off to and sweep it under the rug,” Kahan said.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.

Here is a statement from Rep. Senfronia Thompson on House Bill 1271:

"Credits for parole eligibility are granted in other states, and have been boosted through the recent federal legislation known as the First Step Act. I filed House Bill 1271 which is more specific to the challenges that incarcerated persons face in Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). I believe HB 1271 encourages rehabilitation which is part of the mission of the TDCJ. Texas is a leader when it comes to criminal justice reform and I would like to show the rest of the nation that a program such as this one can be done safely and intelligently.

"While some actions are inexcusable, I do believe that some inmates can turn their lives around. This bill does not guarantee release for anyone; it is only a way to provide an opportunity for parole review."