Larry Robinson is no stranger to the battlefield, having served five combat tours in his 24 years as a sergeant in the U.S Army. But now he is fighting for a much more personal cause—a chance at redemption for his son, Jason.
While Robinson was deployed to Iraq in 1994, his son, 16 at the time, was part of a robbery that led to the death of pawn store clerk Troy Langseth. Although Jason wasn’t the shooter, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Now, more than a quarter century later, the Texas Legislature is set to decide whether people convicted of serious crimes in their youth should be considered for parole after 20 years, instead of 40 years.
On April 8, the Texas House approved HB 686 with more than a two-thirds majority. The “second-look” concept as applied to crimes committed by minors embodied in HB686 is not new—and is becoming law in a growing number of states. The conservative Ohio Senate approved a comparable bill with nearly 90 percent of lawmakers in support, and it was signed earlier this year by Gov. Mike DeWine.
Texas must follow. Research has demonstrated that young people who offend, including those who commit the most heinous crimes, are even more capable of change than their older counterparts. Jason, now 43, is a case in point. He has earned two degrees while incarcerated and is now training as an HVAC technician.
Instead of languishing longer in prison at a cost of about $25,000 a year to taxpayers, such individuals could be contributing to the resurgent Texas economy, which is facing a shortage of workers in many skilled fields.
Such benefits, of course, would not matter if adopting second-look legislation would imperil the safety of our communities. But the data is clear that this is not the case. A study of Pennsylvania juveniles serving life terms who were released on a similar basis revealed that just two of the 174 youth who were freed had been convicted of a new offense during an average 21-month period following release.
This is not surprising given that many cases involving youths sentenced to life for serious crimes involve poor decisions reflecting immaturity made in a very specific context. This was true in the case of Jason, whose mental health deteriorated in the absence of his father and who accompanied a friend who ultimately fired the shot. Notably, another long overdue bill, HB 1340, which would reform the law of the parties in Texas to limit the death penalty to those who pulled the trigger or at least intended that someone be killed, has also passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.
Finally, just as Larry is waiting to help his son reenter society, many other parents and loved ones have laid the groundwork in Texas to provide such support through the Epicenter Initiative. Sadly, if current law continues to preclude parole review until 40 years have passed, many of those released will be too old to start a career that can lead to self-sufficiency, and their parents, assuming they are still living, may not be in a position to assist them.
While Robinson is no longer in the Middle East fighting for his country, he is in the middle of a legislative dogfight battling on behalf of his son. The Texas Senate must act now so that just as surely as the prison gates swing shut, the door to redemption can swing open.