A so-called “second chance” bill under consideration in the Texas Legislature that would allow district attorneys to seek reduced sentences for inmates who can prove they have changed is getting mixed reviews from Waco officials.
House Bill 3392, filed by State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make inmates over the age of 35 who pose no risk to public safety and who have served at least 15 years and those older than 50 who have been locked up for at least 10 years eligible to receive a second look from the courts to review the length of their sentences.
There are 17,000 people in prison who are 50 or older and more than 10,000 who have served more than 20 years, according to the Grassroots Law Project, a justice reform group that supports the bill and an accompanying constitutional amendment.
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee, but P.J. Martinez, Texas campaign director for the Grassroots Law Project, said his group is lining up witnesses for potential hearings, including faith leaders, former prisoners, district attorneys and reform advocates.
“We believe people can grow and change,” Martinez said. “And we believe the huge number of incarcerated persons in the state doesn’t actually make the state much safer. It only contributes to making it more difficult for people to re-enter society in a way that is productive for them.”
Inmates convicted of capital murder, those serving life without parole or those convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child or aggravated sexual assault of a minor are not eligible to seek relief under the conditions set forth in the bill.
Currently, the governor can commute a sentence and an inmate can request commutation in rare instances when a state district judge, sheriff and district attorney agree that the inmate’s sentence should be reduced.
McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson said he agrees there should be a mechanism for an inmate to reduce a sentence besides those two methods. However, Johnson said he foresees district attorneys’ offices around the state being swamped with requests from inmates should the bill pass.
“If you do the right thing on the front end, you might not have that many of these situations arise,” Johnson said. “Potentially, it could cause the DAs in all 254 counties spending a ton of time with the families every time they reach one of those areas in age or sentence where they would just flood the DA’s office with additional information on those they feel might be eligible. Although the idea is good, I could see where it could potentially be a flood of families calling in. That would be the downside of it.”
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, a “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” type, agrees that the criminal justice system could use a few reforms. But he said he does not see the need for HB 3392 because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles determines when inmates deserve to be released.
“We are arguing that the parole board is a political entity appointed by the governor,” Martinez said. “We think the process is too slow and that it internalizes the punitive nature of the criminal justice system. We believe this new pathway for release would go a long way to decarcerate the state and give people a second chance that they deserve.”
Longtime Waco criminal defense attorney Stan Schwieger agrees the parole and commutation procedures are too political. And he said the other mechanism for early release is “a mirage, it’s just not going to happen.”
“I think the idea is wonderful, but I am not figuring these guys are going to go out on a limb on any type of criminal justice issue that involves letting people out of prison,” Schwieger said. “I think, and I am not going to use the term ‘rehabilitation’ because there is very little of that at TDCJ (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice), but people get it wrong. Juries get it wrong.
“You are looking at a guy who was 20 when he was convicted, and at 50, he is not the same person. If it is just for punishment sake, which I don’t believe in, it is what it is. But if you are looking to start clearing the prison from some of these folks, there needs to be mechanisms in place for these folks to demonstrate they aren’t the same person they were when they committed the crime.”