Bill would cap certain sentences for juveniles

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony March 15 on a bill that would reduce the maximum sentence for certain felonies in Nebraska if committed by a juvenile.

Sen. Jen Day
Sen. Jen Day

Under current law, a Class IA felony is punishable by a minimum of 40 years up to life in prison and a Class IB felony is punishable by a minimum of 20 years up to life in prison. LB127, introduced by Omaha Sen. Jen Day, would cap the maximum sentence for both felony classifications at 80 years imprisonment for a convicted juvenile.

Day said the proposal is based on several U.S. Supreme Court cases that have declared life sentences without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. While Nebraska made changes to its criminal code to eliminate mandatory life sentences for juveniles charged as adults, she said, life sentences are still permitted under the state’s sentencing guidelines.

Additionally, she said, advancements in brain science have shown that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed until their early to mid 20s — something the state’s criminal code should recognize.

“This bill recognizes the value of individuals and encourages redemption and transformation rather than having a system in which people are sentenced and locked away for the rest of their lives,” Day said.

Testifying in support of the bill was Douglas County Public Defender Thomas Riley, representing his office and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. Currently, judges can and do sentence juveniles to 90 to 160 years in prison, he said, and those essentially are life sentences.

LB127 recognizes the science of juvenile brain development and gives “absolute credence” to the reality that people can change, Riley said.

Also in support was Juliet Summers, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska. The proposal would distinguish offenses committed by juveniles from other offenses, she said, and would acknowledge that even in the most tragic cases, developmental factors make juvenile defendants different.

“Eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option for individuals under age 18 acknowledges this truth and would bring Nebraska into line with a growing majority of states,” Summers said.

Daniel Gutman, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, also testified in support. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison by imposing life without parole for individuals under the age of 18, he said.

“States across the country are responding to this injustice by passing legislation to ban juvenile life [imprisonment] without parole,” Gutman said. “Every single state that borders Nebraska — South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri — has either affirmatively banned the practice or no one is serving that sentence there.”

In opposition to the bill was Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, speaking on behalf of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association. There is no life without parole for juveniles in Nebraska, he said, because individuals are eligible for parole after serving part of their sentence.

Additionally, Kleine said, judges use the appropriate discretion provided to them, including the facts of the case and the defendant’s background, to determine sentencing for a juvenile offender.

William Rinn of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office also testified in opposition. Sentencing discretion should be left to judges, he said, and the victim and the victim’s family have to be considered for there to be a balanced approach.

The committee took no immediate action on LB127.

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