Sentencing reform proposed for younger offenders

Members of the Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 17 on a bill that would change certain sentencing provisions for young offenders.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks

LB34, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, would prohibit life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed by someone under 21.

The United States is the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes they committed before turning 18, Pansing Brooks said, although 24 states already have prohibited life without parole as a sentencing option for young people.

“When we sentence youth under 18 to life in prison without parole, we are sentencing them to die in prison,” she said. “Under LB34, these children may still receive harsh sentences, but they will also know that they have the option of paying their debt, coming to terms with their mistakes and someday returning to society and becoming productive citizens.”

The bill also would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for Class IC and ID felonies committed by someone under 21.

Tom Riley, speaking on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, supported LB34. He said the science clearly shows that an individual’s brain is not fully developed until age 25.

“The juveniles act irrationally … they don’t think things through and sometimes do really bad stuff,” Riley said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re irreparably corrupt.”

Also speaking in support of the bill was Dwayne Tucker of Omaha. He said he was sentenced to life in prison without parole at 17, but was paroled after a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned automatic life sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional.

“I was thrown into an adult system with no knowledge of what that really meant,” Tucker said. “I was 32 before I realized what it really meant to be incarcerated for the rest of my life. Growing up in an adult prison, a child doesn’t have the opportunity to grow as a child should.”

Opposing the bill was Erin Tangeman, appearing on behalf of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. The bill minimizes the nature of the crimes committed, she said, and the danger that offenders pose to the public.

Age should be a factor in sentencing, she said, but not the sole factor.

“The leniency given by LB34 ignores the victim and the victim’s family whose lives have often been shattered by these offenses,” Tangeman said. “Determining the appropriate punishment and best outcomes for public safety should be done on a case-by-case basis with life imprisonment without parole as an option.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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