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Juveniles convicted of the most serious crimes possible would face a 40-year minimum prison sentence instead of a life sentence under a compromise Nebraska lawmakers made Tuesday after nearly eight hours of debate.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha introduced a bill (LB 44), along with a committee amendment (AM 151), that would have made the minimum sentence 30 years and set the maximum at life without parole.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege proposed the amendment (FA 55) that would change it to a 40-year minimum, which would mean juveniles convicted of the most serious crimes would be behind bars for at least 20 years before their first parole hearing.
The amendment passed easily with a 30-3 vote.
“It’s not easy on offenders; it is not giving them a break, necessarily,” Ashford said. “It does clearly give hope to juveniles who have committed a serious offense.”
Ashford said a 40-years-to-life sentence would be a responsible compromise for the bill, which would allow for rehabilitation of these juveniles.
The bill applies to juvenile offenders convicted of the most serious crimes (class IA felonies) such as murder, rape and kidnapping.
Nebraska currently has 17 inmates serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
With the new sentence range in place, the committee amendment to the bill was adopted on a 31-1 vote.
Before adopting the 40-year sentence, senators rejected an amendment (AM 967) that would have required a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for juveniles who committed Class 1A felonies.
This amendment failed on a 23-14 vote. It needed at least 25 votes to pass.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha introduced the amendment, saying that a 25-year mandatory minimum is the highest minimum required for other juvenile crimes, such as secondary sexual assault.
McCoy said his amendment would speak "to the seriousness of these crimes.”
Supporters of the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence said they thought it was more proportionate to the crime than the 30-year sentence, which would allow inmates to be eligible for parole after 15 years.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said 15 years is too short of an imprisonment, especially if the rehabilitation has not been proven to be effective for these juveniles.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln said, however, that it is unrealistic to think that inmates will be released on their first parole date because there are a series of requirements that they usually do not meet before that time.
He referred to these requirements, such as counseling sessions, as “punching the ticket.”
“They are not going to be really eligible for release until that ticket is punched,” Avery said, “and the system does not provide adequate opportunities for inmates to punch the ticket when they need to punch it.”
Other opponents of McCoy’s amendment said setting a mandatory minimum would limit the discretion of the courts.
“Trust your prosecutors. Trust your judges,” Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said.
Ashford also emphasized the need for the change in juvenile sentencing to allow more opportunities for rehabilitation, rather than more years in prison.