LINCOLN — Nebraska must find a way to punish some kids who kill with less than life in prison.
State lawmakers argued Monday about how much less.
Floor debate centered on setting a minimum number of years in prison that a judge could choose for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Existing state law mandates life in prison without parole for such juveniles, but the U.S. Supreme Court has declared the law unconstitutional.
Senators fell into two camps Monday: those favoring 30 years to life, and those who wanted 60 years to life.
“We know when we apply a sentence of life without parole we are writing that child's life off forever,” said Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a member of the 30-year camp.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha argued for the higher minimum sentence when he said the age of the killer matters little when the outcome is the same.
“Someone is dead, and a family is devastated,” he said.
Late Monday afternoon, those in favor of the tougher sentences failed by four votes to pass an amendment to raise the minimum sentence to 60 years. First-round debate on the bill was expected to resume this morning.
Legislative Bill 44 responds to the high court's ruling last year in Miller v. Alabama, which overturned state laws requiring life sentences without parole as the only possible penalty for young killers. The 5-4 ruling stemmed from the majority's opinion that judges must take into account the “mitigating qualities of youth” when sentencing a juvenile for a murder.
Some of those factors include immaturity, impulsive behavior and, often, troubled upbringings that make a child less capable of resisting negative peer pressure.
The latest research shows that the brain doesn't fully develop until young adulthood, meaning some juveniles aren't able to understand the seriousness of their actions.
The proposed legislation gives Nebraska judges the discretion to sentence juvenile killers from 30 years to life in prison. Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the bill's sponsor, explained that judges could still choose a sentence of life without parole if the crime warrants such a sentence, but the proposal would also provide for lesser prison terms.
Twenty-seven inmates are currently serving life terms without the chance of parole for crimes that they committed when they were younger than 18.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh offered the amendment increasing the minimum to 60 years. He said that because state sentencing guidelines allow an inmate to be paroled after serving half of a sentence, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder under LB 44 could come up for release in 15 years.
Under Lautenbaugh's amendment, such an inmate wouldn't be eligible for parole until serving 30 years.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha vowed to fight the bill if his fellow lawmakers adopted Lautenbaugh's amendment.
Nebraska and Iowa were among 29 states with laws that allow no discretion to judges when sentencing young murderers.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad responded to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling by commuting the 38 affected inmates to sentences that allow parole eligibility after 60 years in prison. The action means none of those inmates would be eligible for release until they are well into their 70s.
Several Iowa inmates have filed legal challenges to Branstad's action.
The Nebraska Board of Pardons sought to commute the prison terms of some of the 27 inmates last year, but a Douglas County District Court judge granted an injunction that prevented the board from acting.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are closely watching the Legislature on this issue.
When testifying during a public hearing earlier this year, the Nebraska County Attorneys Association favored a minimum mandatory sentence of 60 years for youths convicted of murder.
LB 44 does not direct how the courts should address inmates already serving automatic life terms.
Ashford said he expects the courts will settle that question by ruling that the bill applies retroactively and that those inmates should be resentenced.
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