The Bulletin front page in November, highlighting a feature article on juvenile sentences.
Juveniles convicted of Class 1A felonies would no longer face a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, under a bill introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha.
The Legislature debated the bill (LB 44) Monday. It would establish a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum sentence of 30 years imprisonment for juvenile offenders convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder, rape and kidnapping.
The bill is an attempt to bring Nebraska state law in line with a recent Supreme Court decision that mandatory sentences of "life witahout the possibility of parole" are unconstitutional for juveniles under age 18.
Nebraska currently has 17 inmates serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
“It is imperative that we make clear that juveniles are different from adults,” Ashford said.
A committee amendment to the bill (AM 151) would require courts to consider several mitigating factors when sentencing juvenile offenders, such as their age at the time of the crime, their family and community environment and their “impetuosity.”
The amendment would also require the court to conduct comprehensive mental health evaluations of juvenile offenders to determine their psychological history.
Senators Monday voted down two amendments introduced by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, that would have raised the minimum sentence from 30 to 60 years and eliminated the reference to mitigating factors.
Opponents of LB 44 argue that 30 years is not enough considering offenders would be eligible for parole after 15 years, and that the language of the mitigating factors is imprecise.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus took particular issue with the word “impetuosity,” which he said is ill-defined and could lead to future court challenges to the law.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha said the mitigating factors outlined in the bill are things judges already consider during sentencing. He expressed concern that the bill might interfere with the discretion of judges to determine appropriate sentences.
“By putting this into statute, I’m not sure what situation we create,” McCoy said.
Supporters of the bill countered by saying that it still gives judges discretion in sentencing, and that several other states – including Iowa and Wyoming – have adopted similar minimum sentences.
Supporters also emphasized that the bill is designed to create a separate system for juvenile offenders.
“Children should be treated like children,” said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha. “Juveniles should be treated like juveniles.”
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha agreed.
“You cannot treat juveniles as adults when sentencing for murder,” he said.
Lathrop said adolescents’ brains are not fully developed and, as a result, they are more susceptible to persuasion and less capable of making rational decisions than adults.
The Legislature will vote Tuesday on the amendment and the bill itself.