Review Sentencing of Juveniles: Testimony in Support of HB 686

My name is Rachana Chhin, and I am the Legislative Counsel of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops testifying in support of HB 686. The Texas bishops support criminal justice reform that provides for compassionate treatment of prisoners, responds to the needs of victims of crime, and encourages rehabilitation and forgiveness for those re-entering society. The TCCB supports this bill to promote parole board review of lengthy sentences given to juveniles.

HB 686 changes parole eligibility for inmates convicted of an offense when they were younger than 18 years. It would require the parole board to take into account additional considerations for youth and adopt a review policy to ensure that someone is provided meaningful opportunity to obtain release. Factors taken into consideration would include the diminished capacity of juveniles, the hallmark features of youth, and the greater capacity of juveniles for change.

The TCCB’s perspective on this bill is informed by our Christian faith. Jesus, who himself was a prisoner, began his ministry by proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives. In our day, we are called to find Christ in young children at risk, troubled youth, prisoners in our jails and on death row, and crime victims experiencing pain and loss. In this respect, Pope Francis challenges us to accompany our incarcerated brothers and sisters. He said, ” “[t]here is no humane punishment without a horizon. No one can change their life if they don’t see a horizon. And so many times we are used to blocking the view of our inmates.”

While we do not argue against promoting justice and the rule of law for criminal acts, Texas has one of the harshest parole eligibility laws in the US. According to Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, children as young as 14 who are convicted of certain serious crimes can be sentenced to a de facto life sentence without any opportunity for parole until they have served, in many cases, at least 40 years behind bars. Recent advances in psychology and neuroscience confirm for us that punishments such as these are not proportional to the offense, given the development shortcomings of youth. For the foregoing reasons, we respectively request you vote for HB 686’s passage.