AUSTIN — In state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins’ district, two children were found tied to a tree in a backyard and six others were found inside the home, unattended, last May. But since the abuse did not involve serious bodily injury, the criminal cases had to be filed initially as third-degree felonies, punishable by two to 10 years in jail.
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood did not think that was sufficient, Gervin-Hawkins said, and she agreed.
“Many of the children had scars on their back that suggested they had been whipped regularly,” she said. “People were outraged that this kind of abuse was not charged more severely but the prosecutors’ hands were tied.”
On Monday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on HB 3301, authored by Gervin-Hawkins, which aims to make serial abuse of children under 6 years old, the elderly and the disabled a first degree felony, even without evidence of serious bodily injury.
Under the bill, abusers who commit an offense two or more times against the state’s most vulnerable would face a first-degree felony punishable by five to 99 years or life in prison. If there was serious bodily injury, the abuser would face at least 15 years to life.
The child abuse case involving eight children later produced indictments as a first-degree felony with further evidence, but Gervin-Hawkins said the case illuminated the legal standard that currently applies to abuse. The case against three persons involved in caring for the children is pending; no trial date has been set.
The bill is being pushed in the House and the Senate by San Antonio area lawmakers. Rep. Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio, is a co-sponsor of the House bill. His brother, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, also a San Antonio Democrat, authored the companion bill in the Senate, SB 1436. It is co-sponsored by Sens. Donna Campbell, a Republican, and Jose Menendez, a Democrat.
“HB 3301 is closing the gap,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “It applies when someone intentionally causes continuous bodily injury to those groups.”
Gervin-Hawkins said lawmakers were approached by LaHood , who asked for the changes to stop criminals who show a pattern of abuse towards the elderly, the children and the disabled.
Assistant District Attorney Meredith Chacon, representing LaHood, told the panel that when prosecutors take a case to trial, victims who did not sustain bodily injury might have been beaten multiple times.
“Prosecutors tell us they want a broader range of punishment for these repeated offenses,” Chacon said. “Give the jury the power to be able to assess the punishment that they think is most appropriate in these cases.”
Gervin-Hawkins said the bill would attempt to close the cycle of those who grow up being abused and who become offenders as adults.
“When we look at the aggressive behavior of young people in the country, a lot of them have been abused themselves,” she said. “We must ensure that we protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is imperative that those who regularly abuse these groups be punished with the full force of the law.”
This story was published in the San Antonio Express-News April 25, 2017.