This past June, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the mandatory sentencing of children and youth to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment, because it ignores the very fact that children are children. Youth are both less culpable for their actions and more capable of change. In a just society, we can’t ignore that children are different from adults.
Nebraska is one of 29 states that must replace its current sentencing scheme because of the courts’ decision. And it hasn’t been easy. Last week, the Nebraska Unicameral spent over 8 hours debating how to deal with children and youth who commit very serious crimes – crimes that result in the death of another person. Nebraska is searching for a just solution – one that acknowledges the severity of the crime and pain of the victims; one that also remembers that children are children and condemning them to death in prison is costly for them and for our society as a whole. After all, when children commit serious crimes, it is often society that has failed them. Many of our current juvenile lifers were subject to years of abuse, poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and struggles with substance abuse.
The proposal on the table keeps changing. We started in committee with a proposal that would have established a scheme of 20 years to life. The committee increased that by 10 years. Then the full Unicameral voted to require a 40 years to life sentence, after narrowly defeating amendments that would have increased that number even higher. Although the bill advanced last week, there are still calls to make the minimum sentence even higher, and it’s unclear what the path forward will be.
So what approach is just? At the end of the day, we at Voices for Children think all children who commit serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to prove they’ve changed and to contribute to society. They should be held accountable for their actions, but this shouldn’t preclude a chance at rehabilitation and a bright future. No matter what happens with LB 44, we still have a lot of work to do.