LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers moved closer to a solution for punishing juvenile killers Tuesday, but not before they raised the objections of a potentially powerful opponent.
State senators voted 31-1 to adopt an amendment that would allow a range of sentences from 40 years to life for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Lawmakers spent much of the eight hours of debate wrangling over whether to set the minimum at 25, 30 or 60 years.
Under the current version of the bill, a juvenile sentenced to the minimum term of 40 years could seek parole after serving 20 years. The state's sentencing guidelines determine parole eligibility based upon half of the minimum term.
The issue emerged last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws in Nebraska, Iowa and 27 other states that mandate life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. The high court said preventing judges from giving lesser penalties to juveniles when warranted constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
While Nebraska seeks a legislative solution, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad responded to the court ruling by issuing an order last year that 38 inmates sentenced to life for juvenile crimes in Iowa must remain imprisoned for 60 years after their conviction before seeking parole. Legal challenges to the Branstad's action are now starting to work their way through the courts.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, sponsor of Legislative Bill 44, said it's crucial that lawmakers pass the bill to avoid letting the courts decide what to do with the 27 inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors. It's possible that federal judges could opt to release some of the inmates, Ashford said.
“There's no good result if the Legislature does not act,” he said. “We'll get it done, I hope.”
Before lawmakers could vote to advance LB 44 to the second round of debate, an irate Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha announced that he was opposed to the amended version that raised the minimum prison time from 30 to 40 years. Chambers then filed a motion to indefinitely postpone the measure, which, if approved, could kill it for the session.
Unless Chambers pulls the motion, it will be considered when the bill comes up again for debate. Ashford said it will probably be scheduled for additional debate this week.
Chambers criticized his colleagues who pushed for higher minimum sentences. He pointed out that as drafted, the bill proposed that the minimum term be 20 years, but the Judiciary Committee raised it to 30 before advancing it to the floor.
“The 30 is what I was going to stick by,” Chambers said.
But other lawmakers opposed the thought of allowing a juvenile killer to potentially win parole after serving 15 years in prison.
“These aren't shoplifters,” said Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala. “These are people doing some really bad things. First-degree murder is about as bad as it gets.”
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont listed some of the victims of the killers serving life in Nebraska. They included a woman who was kidnapped, raped and shot, an 8-year-old boy who was strangled with a telephone cord and a hardware store owner who was shot 17 times.
Ashford argued that the bill would give judges the discretion to sentence the most cold-blooded juvenile killers to life without parole. Nebraska judges wouldn't give the minimum to the most heinous cases.
“I think everyone can use our common sense,” he said.
Amendments to raise the minimum to 60 years or a mandatory 25 years both failed.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege filed the amendment to raise the minimum sentence to 40 years. Ashford called the amendment reasonable.
Although the amendment passed by wide margin, 14 senators were present but did not vote, including Chambers.
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