Being a state senator sometimes requires dealing with issues of grave moral significance. That’s been the case this week as lawmakers have engaged in a frank and difficult debate on the sentencing of young killers.
Murder is the most serious crime. So what minimum sentence should apply to those convicted of a murder committed when they were under age 18?
The U.S. Supreme Court last year said it is unconstitutional to lock them all up and throw away the key with mandatory sentences of life without possibility of parole. However, the high court provided few specific guidelines to lower courts and state lawmakers on how to carry out its decision. Legislatures across the country are wrestling with what the appropriate sentence should be.
Nebraska lawmakers — after hours of passionate and sometimes rancorous debate — have come up with what looks to be a workable compromise. With 31 of 49 senators voting “yes” Tuesday, they supported requiring a minimum 40-year sentence that, with “good time,” means a young offender convicted of first-degree murder would serve at least 20 years before being considered for parole.
Judges still would have considerable leeway, including the ability to impose sentences of more than 40 years, or a life sentence, if appropriate in a particular case. Offenders could not be automatically paroled at any time; they would have to go through the normal process by which the parole board would scrutinize their individual circumstances.
This looks to be a sensible approach in several ways. It balances the need for justice for victims with providing some leeway to judges, as required by the Supreme Court. It also represents a majority view in a philosophically diverse Legislature.
That’s in notable contrast to the confused and unsatisfactory situation in Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad unilaterally decided that the 38 offenders in this category should serve at least 60 years in prison. Given the Supreme Court’s strong push for leeway and “proportionality” in each case, it’s no surprise that Branstad’s decision is being contested in court. A case being heard by the Iowa Supreme Court involves Jeffrey Ragland, 44, imprisoned for life for his involvement as a juvenile in a 1986 Council Bluffs parking lot brawl in which another man was killed.
In Nebraska, members of the Legislature are squeezed between two strong obligations.
On one side, lawmakers rightly cite society’s need to impose serious punishment when a criminal, of whatever age, takes a life. Some of the specific crimes noted in the debate were deeply disturbing and illustrated the moral gravity of the issue. The loss weighs painfully on victims’ families and never goes away. In such cases, society has a clear and fundamental obligation to insist that justice is served.
On the other side, lawmakers are bound by the Supreme Court ruling, which stated repeatedly that judges must view juvenile criminals differently from adults and that young offenders in general have more opportunity for rehabilitation. The ruling referred to scientific findings indicating that the brain isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s.
The 2012 ruling continued a trend of Supreme Court decisions on juvenile sentencing and quoted from them: “The case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.” Because of factors such as “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” juveniles “are typically less culpable than adults.” Judges need to keep these considerations in mind, the court majority said.
How to translate these obligations into specific sentencing requirements — a particular number — is a subjective matter. Nebraska lawmakers understandably have struggled to reach agreement.
The approach they’re taking, while not satisfying everyone, appears to offer a reasonable balance. It would provide a measure of justice for victims and the sentencing flexibility required by the Supreme Court. That’s responsible lawmaking.