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The effect of life without parole

Death sentences are way down since the law was changed to allow a life without parole sentence.

Since a new life-without-parole law took effect in 2005, Harris County — with a national reputation for pursuing capital punishment and home to the fourth-largest city in America, with a population of nearly 4 million people — has sent fewer inmates to death row than Tarrant or Bexar counties, urban counties that include Fort Worth and San Antonio, respectively. Tarrant County’s population is about 1.7 million; Bexar’s is 1.6 million, U.S. Census records show.

Bexar and Tarrant each sent eight newly convicted killers to death row in the four years since the law took effect, state prison data show. In the same period, larger Harris and Dallas counties sent six apiece, based on the Chronicle’s analysis of Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row arrivals.

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Statewide, only about 50 inmates have been added to death row since the law took effect Sept. 1, 2005. In contrast, from September 2001 to September 2005 — the four years before the law was enacted — 90 were sentenced to death.

There were only nine inmates sentenced to death in Texas in 2009, which continues a downward trend. None of those sentences came from Harris County, which says a lot. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for this to keep going that direction, but I am curious about something.

Already, the 4-year-old law has created a kind of “life row” — a perpetual population of convicted killers and accomplices who can never win reductions in their sentence regardless of behavior, youth , mental deficiency or other factors. This group appears to be growing faster than death row itself.

One consequence of this is that some years down the line we will have more and more elderly inmates in Texas’s prisons. Grits has written frequently about the costs associated with elderly inmates – here’s a recent example, or just go here and browse. Most of what’s driving this is the long, often excessive, sentences that are given out in other cases, like drug crimes, but clearly LWOP sentences will add to this. I’m wondering at what point someone in the Lege will take notice of this and try to change things so that older inmates with health issues can be released as a cost-containment measure. That’ll be a fun debate, whenever it happens.

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