LINCOLN — Sheila Bradley of Omaha has wanted to get her brother out of prison for the past 32 years.
A measure heard by the Legislature's Judiciary Committee Friday offers the best chance of realizing that hope since Juan Bradley was locked up at age 17.
Juan Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder for his part in the 1981 shooting death of 85-year-old Joseph Johnson. He is serving life in prison.
Legislative Bill 44 would give Nebraska judges more sentencing options for juveniles like Bradley.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, Judiciary Committee chairman, responds to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned state laws mandating life sentences for youthful killers.
The high court said judges may continue to sentence juveniles to life without parole, but such sentences must not be the only option available.
Sentencing must be done only after a judge reviews how the “mitigating qualities of youth” apply to the offender at hand.
At a public hearing Friday, Ashford proposed that Nebraska adopt a sentencing range of 20 years to life.
That means youngsters who get a minimum sentence could be eligible for parole in 10 years.
Defense lawyers, child advocates and civil rights groups backed the proposal, saying it appropriately recognizes scientific research showing that juveniles lack full brain development.
The research shows that adolescents are more prone to impulsive and violent behavior. In addition, researchers believe that a majority of young offenders suffer from mental illness and are not fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
Sheila Bradley, speaking after the hearing, said she thought the proposal would help her brother, who is now 49.
But some committee members questioned whether a 20-year minimum would be sufficient.
“We have to pick a number that recognizes both science and the need for justice,” said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln.
The Nebraska County Attorneys Association called for much tougher alternatives.
Patrick Condon, deputy Lancaster County attorney, said the group favors a sentencing range of 60 years to life, with no chance of parole before 60 years.
“We have to talk to the families,” he said. “We have to tell them what the sentence is going to be.”
But committee members questioned whether the prosecutors' proposal complied with the ruling requiring that juvenile offenders have a “meaningful” chance at parole.
Condon said he believed it would be constitutional. Youngsters who go into prison at age 16 would have a chance to get out at age 76, he said.
“They still have some life expectancy left,” he said.
Tom Riley, Douglas County public defender, warned that adopting the prosecutors' approach would lead to litigation.
He noted that legal challenges already have been filed to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's action commuting the life sentences of 38 prisoners to sentences that allow for parole only after 60 years in prison.
The commutations were Branstad's response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The Nebraska Board of Pardons attempted to do the same but was blocked by a court injunction.
The board had set December commutation hearings for 24 of the 27 prisoners serving life sentences for their involvement with homicides as juveniles.
Attorney General Jon Bruning told others that the prisoners were to be given 50, 70 or 90 years in prison.
No one from Bruning's office testified at Friday's hearing.
Ashford said he hopes to advance the bill to the full Legislature next week. He said committee members need to decide the minimum sentence and how to make the changes apply to people who have already been sentenced.
Juan Bradley is among those currently sentenced to life. The other 17-year-old convicted in the case, Brent Hubbard, died in prison at age 26 of an apparent suicide.
The measure, LB 44, would not change sentencing options for adults convicted of first-degree murder — death or life in prison without parole.
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