What to do with juvenile murderers

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April 9th, 2013

Lincoln, NE – Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to require judges to sentence juveniles to life in prison without possibility of parole. Now, the Legislature is trying to figure out how to change Nebraska law to conform to that decision.

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The Judiciary Committee has proposed giving judges discretion, between imposing a minimum sentence of 30 years. That could amount to as little as 15 years with time-off for good behavior in prison. Under the proposal, judges could still sentence a juvenile to life, but first they’d have to consider a list of mitigating circumstances, including the person’s impetuosity. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said that’s in line with the reasoning of a series of Supreme Court decisions based on the science of human development:

“There is an overriding mitigating circumstance: youth. Being impetuous. Having poor judgment,” said Lathrop.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings supported the proposal. Seiler gave an example that he said demonstrates the need for giving judges discretion:

“Two teenagers riding down the street,” said Seiler. “The passenger says ‘Pull into this gas station. I want to get a pop.’ He walks in, comes running out, jumps in the car and says ‘I just shot the clerk. You’ve now got them before the court. Both have been found (guilty of) felony murder. Both are before you and now it’s time for sentencing. Are you going to give both of those (kids) the same sentence?” said Seiler.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha questioned whether spending a minimum of 15 years in prison was enough. Lautenbaugh proposed a sentence of 60 years, which could amount to as little at 30 years with time off for good behavior.

“We are dealing with the most horrific crimes,” said Lautenbaugh. “One gentleman was sentenced after shooting a woman while trying to take her purse. Another was sentenced after an 8-year old boy victim was strangled with a telephone cord. Another was sentenced after the victim of a robbery attempt was put in the trunk of the car which was then set afire,” Lautenbaugh said.

Sen. John Nelson of Omaha supported Lautenbaugh’s argument:

“We aren’t talking about petty crimes here, or robberies. We are talking about murder,” said Nelson.

Senators rejected Lautenbaugh’s amendment late Monday afternoon, but continued debate on the bill itself.

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