Friday, July 10, 2009

Oversight: Why so little MSM coverage after Texas abolished LWOP for juveniles?

Doug Berman at the Sentencing Law & Policy blog made an observation on Wednesday which hadn't occurred to me about the surprising lack of media coverage that resulted after Texas abolished "life without parole" for juveniles convicted of capital murder. (The bill was SB 839 by Hinojosa/McReynolds, signed into law by Gov. Perry on June 19.) Berman writes:
In addition to being quite pleased and impressed that Texas passed legislation to reduce sentences for certain juvenile killers, I was troubled that I had completely missed this interesting and important story about a change to Texas justice.

I then spent some time this morning looking for press reports about this new legislation and/or materials about this notable Texas reform from various public policy groups that focus on juvenile justice issues. Disappointingly and aggravatingly, I could not find ANY significant media coverage or materials from public policy groups about this reform to Texas justice. (Grits had a few helpful posts on bill here and here and here, but these posts only confirmed my sense that this Texas story deserves a lot more attention.)

The troublesome silence about the Texas reform is especially notable because many folks are now focused on juve LWOP issues because of the Supreme Court's decision to consider the constitutionality of two non-murder) juve LWOP cases from Florida. And, as death penalty fans know, state legislative developments are central to the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I sure hope that folks writing briefs in the SCOTUS cases of Graham and Sullivan are aware of this recent important reform in Texas justice even though it has been overlooked and ignored by the media and public policy groups.

I responded in the comments to add more background about the bill's passage, so check SL&P's post for more details. (I also gloated a bit that even if the MSM hadn't covered it, "Grits readers knew about it.")

Doug's right, though, that there appears to have been little or no MSM coverage of this bill, even though, as I wrote here, it probably had "the most significant national implications" of all Texas' criminal justice reform legislation passed this session. (If you've seen coverage I'm unaware of, please provide the URL via email or the comments.)

Even among advocacy groups, like Doug I could find hardly anything published about SB 839 on the web except this written testimony (pdf) from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. At the committee hearings in both chambers, representatives from TCJC, ACLU and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association were the only speakers in favor. It seems like now that the death penalty has been off the table a few years for juveniles, all those who might normally show up to engage in "culture war" tinged shouting matches didn't bother anymore, one way or another.

IMO, the bill passed for two reasons: The legislative skill of its sponsors and a split among those who would typically be its strongest opponents. The Harris County DA's lobbyist spoke in opposition to SB 839 on the Senate side, but they backed off the bill in the House after Williamson County DA John Bradley endorsed Hinojosa's proposal. As I wrote in SL&P's comments, "the lack of strong DA opposition combined with unlikely support from a typically-tuff DA was what made the bill sail through. That seemed to be the interest group whose support was most critical for passage."

Once John Bradley gave legislators cover from their "tuff on crime" flank, they were free politically to vote their conscience and the vast majority didn't think LWOP for juveniles was the right thing to do. That wouldn't have been enough if there'd been anyone actively opposing the bill, but without any formal opposition, SB 839 never became the flashpoint of confrontation one might have expected. (The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 101-37 in the House.) SB 839 also enjoyed just a bit of luck, since many other Senate bills died in the House when it melted down at the end of session over voter ID.

That explains why (I think) SB 839 passed, but it doesn't explain why the mainstream media hasn't covered the story with more vigor. Maybe it's because there was no conflict. Or perhaps the reason, simply, is the overall decline in the number of reporters covering the capitol. There are only about half as many as there were a couple of decades ago, many of those are part-tme, and a lot of stuff just doesn't get covered. Perhaps readers have other theories. With the Supreme Court poised to issue a national decision on the constitutionality of juvie LWOP, the story has implications that reverberate well beyond Texas' borders.

In any event, don't forget: You read it here first.


NoMoreNoloContendere said...

GFB, Your last sentence said it all. And that's exactly why you have so many followers. FYI, you don't have to post any comments to be one.

The so-called mainstream media is basically driving information seekers to the likes of GFB in droves. Job / Hobby security for you and a death nail for them. Blog on and we will follow.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on being more on top of this than the MSM. The Texas Observer also reported on Hinojosa's intentions back in January, which I would have missed except I saw the Observer story linked to in February from another blog.

Anonymous said...

The media is dead. Worthless! Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed a bill to address the execution of mentally retarded people. Media was MUM. She aslo filed a bill to adress "puppy mills". Every paper in the state covered that with prime placement. We are doomed.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is becasue Mainstream Media has lost all of its integrity. With the "Slobbering Love Affair" they have with BHO and the Dems they no longer have interest in a Red state like Texas.

Anonymous said...

How many Texas juveniles have been convicted to Lw/o parole? Did it have a bearing on any case/kid in the GSOT?

Anonymous said...

Four under-18 offenders are now serving life-without-parole sentences in Texas. All were sentenced before the 2007 Legislature required the state’s district courts to report demographic information on capital murder cases to the state Office of Court Administration.

Anonymous said...

Juveniles in Texas dont generally get LWOP. Prosecutors usually go for 40 year life which is day for day which is still too long. Unless, that is the LWOP were talking about, I would say once again Texas either missed the point or should I say capitalized on a loophole by abolishing a sentence they rarely if ever give!

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