Life sentences for youth reconsidered

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Jan. 27 on two bills that would reconsider the sentencing of youth who are convicted of a Class I felony.

LB203, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, would eliminate the life imprisonment sentence for youth convicted of a Class I felony. Under the bill, youth between 16 and 18 years old at the time a crime is committed would be sentenced to 50 years and those younger than 16 who convicted of a Class I felony would be sentenced to 40 years.

Council said juveniles lack of maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of accountability. It is time to consider all of the psychological and medical information about brain development of juveniles when sentencing them for crimes, she said.

“From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult,” Council said.

Sarah Forrest, representing Voices for Children in Nebraska, testified in support of the bill, saying the sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile is inconsistent with current science on youth’s brain development regarding immaturity, vulnerability and changeability.

“These aren’t adults,” she said, adding that state and federal laws recognize the distinction by placing age restrictions on voting, smoking and drinking.

Furthermore, she said, paroling 12 inmates would save the state more than $12 million.

Brett Byford, representing the Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Minors and a proponent of LB203, said the bill was a symbol of hope for those serving sentences for crimes committed in their youth.

“It’s a small dim light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” Byford said. “Hope like that can do more for some of those guys than any of us could imagine.”

Michael Garza, whose son Chris was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile, testified in support of the bill. Michael went to prison at 13 years old, he said, and three of his five sons also have been incarcerated.

“We changed our lives. All of my other sons work steady jobs,” he said.

“We know now that we have to teach them and break that cycle,” Garza said. “I never knew what love was or what a hug was. All I ever knew was violence. And that’s what Chris knew.”

Don Kleine, county attorney for Douglas County, testified in opposition to LB203.

“It saddens me to have to be here,” Kleine said. “It’s disturbing as a prosecutor to sit in a courtroom on a first degree murder case and have a 14- or 15 year-old sitting on the bench.”

But reducing the penalty for taking someone’s life because they are young, he said, sends the wrong message to youth.

A second bill introduced by Council would permit juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole to petition for a resentencing hearing.

LB202 would create specific criteria and a three-part review process by which juvenile offenders could prove they have matured and changed in hopes of receiving a lesser sentence.

“It’s not a free pass,“ Council said. “It’s an opportunity for people who got into trouble when they were too young.”

The committee took no immediate action on either bill.

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