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Author’s Wrong Testimony Dooms Texas Juvenile Justice Bill

The bill would have given young offenders the opportunity to apply for parole after 30 years in prison, a full 10 years less than the law currently allows. State Sen. Drew Springer’s bill will not advance after he explained it wrong.

Larry Robinson has worked for almost a decade to convince Texas lawmakers that his now 44-year-old son Jason, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager, deserves a second chance. Last week it looked as though it might finally be coming as lawmakers appeared poised to advance the so-called "Second Look Act," which would give people like Jason Robinson a chance to apply for parole early.

But on Friday, everything unraveled during a chaotic committee hearing that has perplexed even the most seasoned observers of Texas' legislative process. During the hearing, several state senators who had purportedly been working on the Second Look Act for months began to question the basics of what it actually said — and the author of the most current version of the legislation, Republican state senator Drew Springer of North Texas, failed to clear up the confusion.

For eleven minutes, the senators debated the bill's substance without consulting a copy of the proposed law, which is three pages long. Then they decided not to advance it for a vote in the Texas Senate, which all but guaranteed its demise in the waning days of the 88th legislative session.

"It really is a shocker. That hearing, I don't understand it," said Robinson, who watched the proceedings from his home in Killeen. The futures of his son and hundreds of other people who were sentenced to life in prison as children in Texas now hang in the balance.

Jason Robinson has served 29 years in prison for his role in the murder of a pawn shop owner in Killeen when he was 16. Though Robinson did not actually kill the victim, he was found guilty of capital murder under Texas' "law of parties." That means he cannot apply for parole until he's served at least 40 years in prison, under current law.

The Second Look Act would allow Robinson to apply for parole after 30 years, a full decade earlier, and it has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support for months. The Texas House already voted overwhelmingly in favor of a much more expansive version of the bill in April, and two Republican lawmakers — Reps. David Cook and Brad Buckley — even went to visit Robinson in prison.

"They came back impressed," Larry Robinson said, noting that his son has received two degrees in prison, along with a paralegal certificate. "They said, you know what, this kid deserves a second chance."

The legislation would not allow anyone to get out of prison automatically. That decision would be left up to members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, who are appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. But when State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, called a last-minute hearing of the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to consider the bill, members seemed to think otherwise.

"I think they get out at 30 [years]," said Houston Republican Joan Huffman, a prosecutor who opposed the bill. "If you killed someone's son, if you killed someone's daughter, you're going to get out even though the family thought that a judge and a jury had convicted you, and you were going to stay in prison. Is that correct?"

"That's correct," responded Springer, who authored the Senate version of the bill and sponsored the version in the House.

Springer was wrong. According to a copy of the bill provided by Whitmire's staff, the legislation merely changes when inmates would be "eligible for release on parole."

Nevertheless, for several more minutes, senators debated the issue and were not able to come to a resolution.

"Which is it?" asked Whitmire. "Because quite frankly I thought it was still a discretionary matter."

Houston Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt chimed in: " Senator Huffman's right."

Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, disagreed: "I don't think it's mandatory," he said.

Bettencourt threw his hands up in disagreement, exclaiming, "It is!"

Sen. Borris Miles, a Democrat from Houston, tried once again to clear up the matter. "They could be the gang leader inside the prison walls and they get an automatic pushout?" he asked.

"This one changed it to an automatic pushout," Springer answered, appearing to refer to the most recent version of the bill — though that is not what it said.

"That's a problem," Miles concluded.

As the minutes went by, no one appeared to be looking at an actual copy of the legislation, and no one sought out testimony that might have cleared up the issue.

Few people were in the audience because Whitmire had called the meeting at the last minute.

Robinson had been taking regular trips to the Capitol to talk with lawmakers throughout the session, but he watched this hearing from his home in Killeen because he only found out about it after it started.

"It's astonishing, like wow, how did this happen?" said Edwin Debrow, who has been working with Robinson and others to push for the bill's passage for years. He said he watched the 11-minute committee hearing at least three times. "This could have been cleared up in five minutes. Why it was not, I don't know."

Debrow, who lives in Pearland, spent 28 years in prison for murder. Because he'd been convicted at age 12, he did not get a life sentence and was eligible to apply for parole earlier. Even still, it took him eight tries before the parole board agreed to let him out of prison in 2019.

"The parole board has the sole authority to decide who's worthy of release from prison," Debrow said. "And [lawmakers] know that. So for the bill not to get a vote now ... it's not fair to the families. It's just not fair."

Springer's staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the hearing.

In a statement, Whitmire told the Chronicle "I am a strong supporter of Second Look" and "I continue to work with the bill sponsors to try and get this important legislation passed."

Huffman told The Chronicle she "had not reviewed a copy of the bill as it had just been referred, so I had to rely on the sponsor's explanation of the bill, which was lacking in clarity." She added that she was "wholeheartedly opposed" to the bill even if it did not call for anyone's mandatory release from prison.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who has in the past signaled support for the Second Look Act, said a hang-up over language in the bill contributed to its demise. "There was confusion in the hearing about the use of the word "automatic" and whether it meant the sentence was automatically reduced to 30 years," said the spokesman, Steven Aranyi.

But the word "automatic" does not appear in the legislation that senators were discussing on Friday. Aranyi did not respond to requests for comment about the discrepancy.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also appears to approve of the idea. Two years ago, a version of the Second Look Act easily passed both chambers of the Legislature, but last-minute changes to the language introduced some technical errors in the bill. Abbott vetoed it, but in a highly unusual statement, signaled that he would sign it the next time around.

"The bill, which addresses parole eligibility for juvenile offenders, admirably recognizes the potential for change and encourages rehabilitation and productiveness in the young offender population," he said in his veto statement. "Further changes to address these issues will allow for meaningful reform on this important matter, and I look forward to working with the House author to accomplish that goal."

There is still a chance the Second Look Act could pass. As the chair of Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, Whitmire could convene another meeting to try and advance the bill to the full chamber. He said he's prepared to do so, but first Springer must ask for another hearing and determine that a majority of the committee will vote yes.

Debrow said that he's confident that after a final push he and others made with state senators over the past three days, everyone knows exactly what the Second Look Act says — and everyone knows it does not call for anyone's mandatory release.

"I think we've done all we can do," he said. "It's on them if they want to do the right thing here."

(c)2023 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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