LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers continued to struggle Tuesday with how much to punish kids who kill.
A contingent of state senators failed in a second attempt to raise the minimum number of years juvenile killers must spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Existing Nebraska law mandates life in prison without parole for such juveniles, but the U.S. Supreme Court has declared the law unconstitutional.
Legislative Bill 44 proposes giving judges the discretion to sentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder from 30 years to life in prison. Under state sentencing guidelines, a juvenile given 30 years in prison could come up for parole after 15 years.
On Tuesday, the second day of debate on the bill, Omaha. Sen. Beau McCoy proposed an amendment requiring juvenile murderers to serve a minimum of 25 years before their first parole hearing.
“I think that makes sense with the seriousness of these crimes, the heinousness of these crimes,” McCoy said.
The amendment failed by a vote of 23-14 with 11 senators present but not voting.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the sponsor of the bill, argued that judges will continue to sentence the most cold-blooded teen killers to life without parole. A 30-year minimum gives judges the ability to treat children differently than adults when the circumstances dictate, as the Supreme Court has required.
“Nebraska is terrible, terrible in the way it treats juveniles who offend,” Ashford said.
Lawmakers also took up Tuesday an amendment that would require from 40 years to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
Late Monday afternoon, those in favor of the tougher sentences failed by four votes to pass an amendment to raise the minimum sentence to 60 years.
LB 44 responds to the high court's ruling last year in Miller v. Alabama, which overturned state laws requiring life sentences without parole as the only possible penalty for young killers. The 5-4 ruling stemmed from the majority's opinion that judges must take into account the “mitigating qualities of youth” when sentencing a juvenile for a murder.
Some of those factors include immaturity, impulsive behavior and, often, troubled upbringings that make a child less capable of resisting negative peer pressure. The latest research shows that the brain doesn't fully develop until young adulthood, meaning some juveniles aren't able to understand the seriousness of their actions.
The proposed legislation gives Nebraska judges the discretion to sentence juvenile killers from 30 years to life in prison.
Twenty-seven inmates are currently serving life terms without the chance of parole for crimes that they committed when they were younger than 18.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh offered the amendment increasing the minimum to 60 years. He said that because state sentencing guidelines allow an inmate to be paroled after serving half of a sentence, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder under LB 44 could come up for release in 15 years. Under Lautenbaugh's amendment, such an inmate wouldn't be eligible for parole until serving 30 years.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha vowed to fight the bill if his fellow lawmakers adopted Lautenbaugh's amendment.
Nebraska and Iowa were among 29 states with laws that allow no discretion to judges when sentencing young murderers.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad responded to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling by commuting the 38 affected inmates to sentences that allow parole eligibility after 60 years in prison. The 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.
The Nebraska Board of Pardons sought to commute the prison terms of some of the 27 inmates last year, but a Douglas County District Court judge granted an injunction that prevented the board from acting.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are closely watching the Legislature on this issue. When testifying during a public hearing earlier this year, the Nebraska County Attorneys Association favored a minimum mandatory sentence of 60 years for youths convicted of murder.
LB 44 does not direct how the courts should address inmates already serving automatic life terms. Ashford said he expects the courts will settle that question by ruling that the bill applies retroactively and that those inmates should be resentenced.
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