AUSTIN, Texas – A hearing before the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee was punctuated by impassioned testimony on both sides of the “Second Look” bill. The bill was filed by El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody (D-District 78) and is aimed at inmates who were under the age of 18 when convicted of capital crimes and first-degree felonies.
House Bill 256 could shorten the time a person is required to remain in prison before becoming eligible for parole. The bill would allow so-called youthful offenders to become eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence or 20 calendar years, whichever is less.
“Someone is probably not the same person at age 30 that they were at age 15,” said Moody.
The bill quickly drew scrutiny from family members of those murdered or injured during the mass shootings at Santa Fe High School. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, is accused of killing 10 classmates and educators and is charged with capital murder. Since he is under the age of 18, he is not eligible for the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without parole. Currently, a person sentenced to life in prison for capital murder must serve at least 40 years before being eligible for parole. Moody’s bill could cut that time in half for cases like that of Pagourtzis.
“I come to you with great pain,” Rosie Stone, whose son, Christopher, was killed during the Santa Fe shooting, said to the committee. “I just ask that mass shootings and public (school) shootings be excluded from this.”
Others were aghast the bill was even being considered.
“The idea is ludicrous,” said Dawn Rosenboom, whose son Colby was injured during the shootings. “He will still be at an age to have a future and start a family, something he robbed his victims of when he shot them down in cold blood.”
Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady also testified against the bill.
“This bill is targeted for the most violent offenders,” said Roady. “These aren't youthful offenders of youthful indiscretions.”
However, Moody assured family members that just become someone is eligible for parole does not mean they will be released. He argued the parole board would have to consider a wide range of factors, including the nature of the crime and impact on victims' families when deciding whether to release someone from prison under supervision.
“That shooter and those like him will not get paroled,” said Moody.
Criminal justice reform advocates testified in support of the bill, arguing teenagers have a natural diminished capacity when it comes to brain development in relation to maturity and impulse control. Many said those convicted of crimes in their teens should be given a chance to prove personal growth and maturity without spending much of their lives in prison. Family members of those serving 50-and 60-year sentences support passage of the bill.
“There are many families whose lives have been shattered that have a chance, if this bill passes, to heal,” said Vernon Caldwell, whose daughter was convicted at age 16 as an adult and must serve at least 35 years before being eligible for parole.
These parents admitted their children made grievous errors in their teenage years, but now, as middle-aged adults, they are not the same people and should be given a chance to go home.
“In a way, we are victims, also. We're serving that sentence with them,” said father Robert Elsner.
In a surprise move at the end of the hearing, Moody asked that his bill be left pending in committee so he could revise the language to exclude crimes like the mass shooting in Santa Fe.