The writer is executive director of ACLU Nebraska.
On Nov. 7, the Omaha World-Herald started an article with the question, “Should the Nebraska Supreme Court wait for legislative action on the sentencing of juvenile murderers or strike out on its own?”
This article looked into how Nebraska will respond to a practice called “cruel and unusual” by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year — mandatory life sentences for young offenders. It is a dilemma for all fair-minded people: When a kid kills, he or she must be punished, and punished seriously, in order to acknowledge the terrible loss of the victim’s life.
But science unequivocally demonstrates that juveniles are different from adult offenders — a child’s brain isn’t finished developing yet and therefore kids are more likely to be rehabilitated and capable of returning safely to their communities.
In Nebraska, our criminal justice system should keep communities safe and treat people fairly, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account. And in order for our system to do a good job, it must be cost-effective by using our taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely.
Nebraska is among the states that have been increasingly taking children away from books and putting them behind bars — at a cost topping nearly $70,000 annually, more than the cost of two years at Nebraska’s most expensive university.
One of the most extreme examples has been sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. This not only destroys the future of these often vulnerable children but costs no less than hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of each life.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently called this practice of mandatory life without the possibility of parole cruel and unusual punishment. Those in Nebraska’s prisons who were not old enough to vote, drive, drink, go to an R-rated movie and do many other things when they committed their crimes will now need to have their sentences re-evaluated.
It is possible that the Nebraska Legislature will come up with a solution to end this practice and likely save hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
The ACLU filed a brief supporting the work of Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, asking the court to re-evaluate these sentences now — not wait months or years for the Legislature to make a decision. The cost to taxpayers of delaying decisions is just too high.
According to a 2008 report by the ACLU, more than half of juveniles sentenced to life were of color, compared to less than 10 percent of our state’s population being people of color in the most recent Census. In addition to racial disparities, those sentenced to life as juveniles are often from low-income backgrounds, have a mental illness or faced abuse while growing up.
Now our highest court must re-evaluate the sentence of someone who was just 15 when condemned to life. There is no question that a crime was committed and even juveniles must pay a price for their crimes.
But condemning someone not old enough to serve on the jury that would convict him or her — taking away any chance at a future — is, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently said, simply cruel and unusual.