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Midlands Voices: Heed high court, give juvenile offenders shot at reform

Midlands Voices: Heed high court, give juvenile offenders shot at reform

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The writer lives in Council Bluffs.

Twenty-one years ago, a 17-year-old youth kidnapped my 15-year-old son, Jeremy Drake. Within hours, my son had been shot to death in a park in northeast Omaha. That youth, Jeremy Herman, and a 19-year-old were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

My son was a kind and compassionate child. He was a good student; he worked hard and had many friends. He earned his own money to buy a guitar. At 15, he was already an accomplished musician. As the oldest child in a single-parent home, he took on many responsibilities helping me and his younger three siblings.

I cannot describe the grief and agony my family experienced following his death. He was sorely missed on many levels. I felt like my world had ended and I did not know how I would go on living. I had no choice; I had three hurting children to take care of.

Even as I mourned the death of my beloved son, I also suffered from the knowledge that Jeremy Herman, who at one time had been my son's friend, would die in prison. I definitely thought he deserved time in prison, and I wanted him to stay there as long as it took for him to see the error of his ways, sincerely repent and make amends as best he could. The sentence he received seemed very unfair.

The Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill that would reform the state's sentencing guidelines in an effort to comply with last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court found mandatory sentences of life without parole to be unconstitutional and a violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when imposed upon people who were younger than 18 at the time of the crime.

During these deliberations, the Legislature should seek to hold young people accountable when they commit serious crimes, but legislators also need to create opportunities for them to be considered for parole in the future when they prove they are ready.

I arrived at my belief that young people deserve a second chance based on my faith, including the Christian mandate of forgiveness. It also is just good public policy. Keeping a young person in prison for life is a costly undertaking that robs the community of valuable tax dollars that could be better spent on education as well as a multitude of other needs.

In addition, we are missing the social and community contributions these young people have to share. Who better than they to reach out to our troubled youth?

I raised four children of my own and taught students in junior high and high school. I am very familiar with the development of teenagers and realize that all children are capable of making poor decisions. Sadly, some of those decisions have very serious consequences.

It also is a fact that children are more susceptible to outside pressures and usually cannot extricate themselves from harmful environments in the same way that adults can. I know that Jeremy Herman grew up in a less than ideal situation, and this undoubtedly had an impact on his development. Yet, youth also are uniquely able to change — and he is proof of this.

I am grateful that after 19 years in prison, Jeremy Herman, who was convicted of kidnapping, was released from prison as a result of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida, which found it unconstitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide conviction.

He is no longer the person he was back in 1992, when he and an acquaintance took my son into a park where he was shot and left alone to die.

Jeremy Herman and I communicated on a regular basis during the last several years of his incarceration. I, along with my family, also took part in a “victim-offender dialogue” at the prison, a mediated conversation that allowed us to talk about his crime and how it has impacted our family. Because I believed he had been rehabilitated, I testified on his behalf at the Pardons Board on numerous occasions in the hope that his sentence would be commuted to a set number of years with the possibility of parole.

Now that he is out of prison, Jeremy Herman is eager to make a positive contribution to his community. But there is more work to do.

Last spring, I went to Washington, D.C., to witness the arguments in Miller v. Alabama and to publicly express my support for age-appropriate sentencing of youth.

I stood alongside others having lost loved ones to youth violence, as well as formerly incarcerated youth, and the parents, siblings and partners of those sentenced as children to life in prison without parole. We share a desire to see reform in the ways that we hold young people accountable for the harm they cause. We believe young people have the capacity for redemption and do not believe they should be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

From my perspective, the Supreme Court made the right decision in acknowledging that children are different from adults. This should be acknowledged and considered when they are sentenced.

It is now time for Nebraska to follow the Supreme Court's lead. Let's not throw our children away forever.

Instead, we need to ensure that our policies focus on rehabilitation and the preparation for re-entry into society.

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