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Fairer Sentencing Ahead?


Photo CC by 2.0 flickr user csessums

Late on Friday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee began considering how Nebraska will sentence children and youth involved in very serious crimes. 

Nebraska is one of 29 states that have a mandatory sentence of life without parole for certain crimes, even if the person accused is an adolescent. This past June, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of children and youth to life without parole is unconstitutional because it ignores the very fact that children are children. Children  are not fully developed, they are more susceptible to peer pressure, and less conscious of the consequences of their actions. Denying children and youth a chance at meaningful re-entry into society and rehabilitation is cruel and unusual punishment, because youth are less culpable for their actions and also more capable of change. While the court did not say a young person could never receive a life sentence, it believes those sentences should be extremely rare.

Nebraska now has an opportunity to replace its ineffective and inappropriate sentencing scheme for children and youth with a fairer one. The proposal that was heard on Friday afternoon would put in place a penalty of 20 years to life with discretion given to judges at sentencing based on the factors laid out in Miller that may have contributed to the crime, like a child’s history, home environment, and peer pressure. While a 20 year sentence is certainly focused more on punishment than rehabilitation, it at least gives young people a chance at a  meaningful, productive future. It is a huge step forward for fairer sentencing for our young people. 

In the days and weeks to come, we’ll be watching to see whether Senator Ashford’s LB 44 stays on its current promising path, or whether critics and county attorneys who want 60 year minimums succeed in chipping away at the progressive vision laid out at the hearing on Friday. We are hopeful that Nebraska is on a path to policies that more effectively respond to both the needs of our children and public safety.

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