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November 29, 2011

Texas now has "lifer" row larger than its death row

As reported in this new Houston Chronicle piece, which is titled "Nearly 400 capital murder convicts get life without parole," Texas after just a few years after creating LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty now has more inmates slated to die in prison from old age rather than from a trip to the executions chamber. Here are the details, which include some very interesting statistics:

In six years, Texas has built a "lifer's row" filled with 398 prisoners who will never be released through parole - a fast-growing group that already has outpaced the number of inmates serving a death sentence in the Lone Star State, a Houston Chronicle analysis of prison records shows.

Harris County prosecutors, who historically have led the state in seeking death sentences, have so far also been the most aggressive in pursuing capital murder charges and obtaining mandatory life without parole sentences in capital cases.

Texas became the last of the death penalty states to approve life without parole in September 2005, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition to the change. The law applies only to offenders convicted of capital murder.

For the first time, it gave jurors and prosecutors a non-death sentence that guaranteed someone convicted of killing a child, killing multiple victims, slaying a police officer or committing another capital crime could not be released on parole.

In all, 110 Harris County offenders have been sentenced to life without parole since the law took effect, compared with 11 death sentences. "Harris County is a tough law and order county on the really bad actors. That hasn't changed," said First Assistant District Attorney James Leitner.

The change has led to fewer death sentences in Texas and nationwide. Fifty-one people were sentenced to life without parole in Dallas County. Tarrant County had 26; Bexar County had 22.

Texas offenders convicted of capital murder were six times more often sentenced to life without parole than to death: 66 people got death sentences compared with the 398 lifers. The life without parole law has been used in about one third of all Texas counties at least once, the Chronicle's analysis of state prison records shows....

From September 2005 to September 2009, Texas allowed life without parole prison sentences for juvenile offenders who had been certified to stand trial as adults. The law was subsequently changed to bar such punishment. By then, 21 people sentenced for crimes they committed before age 18 had been sentenced, including eight from Harris County....

Seventeen women are serving life without parole. Two were juvenile offenders. One is Ashley Ervin, a former Harris County area honor student sentenced for her role at 17 as the driver for a murderous robbery ring led by older males....

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit critical of the national explosion in such sentences, argued the offenders are more likely to come from impoverished minority groups who sometimes get unfairly targeted by police. "We see that around the country that the race differences in life sentences are generally more extreme," he said. So far in Texas, 76 percent of the state's "lifers" are minorities, compared with 70 percent of death row inmates.

November 29, 2011 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

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