LINCOLN — Twenty years in prison fails to exact justice for murder, even when the killer is a child.
So says Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who weighed in Thursday after lawmakers advanced a bill that would end mandatory life terms without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder and allow judges to instead impose terms that could be as short as a minimum of 20 years.
State senators were compelled to act after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that said judges must be given latitude when punishing teenagers who take lives.
Bruning was not convinced a solution has been found.
“In many cases, these perpetrators are very adult in their thinking, planning and committing of very heinous crimes,” he said. “I think what the Legislature has done is not enough.”
The proposed solution also failed to satisfy a defense lawyer representing one of the inmates serving life for a crime committed when he was 17.
“This one-size-fits-all thing is really dangerous and is disrespectful of trial judges, all of whom are trying to do the right thing both for victims and for justice,” said attorney Adam Sipple of Omaha.
Legislative Bill 44 would allow judges to sentence juvenile killers to 40 years to life in prison. Because parole eligibility in Nebraska is based on half of the minimum term, a killer sentenced to 40 years could seek a parole hearing after 20 years.
The bill must pass two more rounds of consideration before it goes to the desk of Gov. Dave Heineman. Jen Rae Hein, his spokeswoman, said he would review the legislation if it passes and would likely offer a comment at that time.
Lawmakers voted 30-2 to advance the bill. 11 senators — mostly those who favored a higher minimum sentence — were present Thursday but did not vote.
The vote came after nearly two days of difficult debate earlier in the week. Much of it centered on efforts to raise the minimum number of years a juvenile would have to potentially serve before seeking parole.
When lawmakers approved an amendment Tuesday that raised the proposed minimum from 30 years to 40 years, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha filed a motion to indefinitely postpone the measure. On Thursday, he withdrew the motion, though he joined Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber in casting the “no” votes.
“I don't like the 40-year minimum sentence,” Chambers said. “We sometimes don't get what we want.”
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, sponsor of the bill, said judges will still have the ability to sentence teenage killers to life without parole. He also said he hoped such sentences would become rare, as he read from the Supreme Court opinion in Miller v. Alabama, which struck down Nebraska's law.
“By making youth and all that accompanies it irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment,” he said.
The high court ruled that judges must have the discretion to weigh a youth's maturity, cognitive development and potential for rehabilitation when deciding a sentence — all factors that could dictate a lesser sentence.
Compulsory life without parole law for juveniles in Nebraska, Iowa and 27 other states was declared unconstitutional in the court's 5-4 ruling.
Nebraska currently has 27 inmates who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. Although several have filed motions for new sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, the Nebraska bill, if passed, would not be retroactive.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad responded to the high court's ruling by commuting the 38 affected inmates to sentences that allow parole eligibility after 60 years in prison. His 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 bill advanced by the Judiciary Committee proposed giving judges a range of sentences from 30 years to life in prison for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
Senators who considered 30 years too lenient tried to raise the minimum to 60 years, which would have allowed parole eligibility after 30 years. They also tried to pass an amendment calling for a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. Both efforts failed.
Bruning said Thursday he favored the 60-year minimum, which mirrored the position of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.
Sarpy County Public Defender Tom Strigenz is a member of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, which agreed to the eventual compromise amendment.
“We can live with 40 to life,” he said.
Sarah Forrest of Voices for Children Nebraska said she was more concerned about the top end of the punishment. Her organization opposes life sentences for youthful offenders.
“Every kid should have an opportunity at parole,” she said.
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