LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers passed legislation Thursday that ends mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers.
Legislative Bill 44 says judges can sentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder from 40 years to life in prison. Under current law, judges are required to give young killers mandatory terms of life without parole.
The bill now goes to Gov. Dave Heineman, who has until Wednesday to sign or veto it. If he takes no action after the five days, it automatically becomes law. Heineman has not said what he will do.
Lawmakers were compelled to address the issue in response to last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined mandatory life terms for juveniles are unconstitutional. The court said because juveniles are less capable than adults of understanding the ramifications of their actions, automatic life terms constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
But coming up with a range of sentencing options proved controversial during the first round of legislative debate. Because parole eligibility in Nebraska is based on half of the minimum term, some senators wanted a higher floor of 60 years.
Under the bill that was passed Thursday, a killer sentenced to 40 years could seek a parole hearing after 20 years. The bill also gives judges the discretion to sentence a teen killer to life without parole if the sentence fits the crime and the juvenile's individual circumstances.
The bill passed final reading by a 38-1 vote.
Nebraska currently has 27 inmates who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. Although the Nebraska bill will not apply retroactively to those inmates, some have already filed motions for new sentences and more are expected to do so.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad responded to the high court's ruling by commuting the 38 affected inmates to sentences that allow parole eligibility after 60 years in prison. His 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.
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