Last week, the first bill dealing with the reform of our juvenile justice system crossed the Legislative finish line with a vote of 38-1. LB 44, which repeals mandatory life without parole for children and youth, now only awaits the Governor’s signature before it becomes law.
So what does this mean for Nebraska?
First, our state will have complied with the minimum requirements of the Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision last June. The court told states that they couldn’t pretend children weren’t children when imposing the most severe penalty on the books. Nebraska chose to comply with the court’s ruling by giving judges additional discretion. Instead of requiring the imposition of a life sentence for youth, judges will set a sentence based both on the crime and on a young person’s age, maturity, and background among other factors.
Second, the bill still allows children to be sentenced to life without parole and sets a fairly high minimum sentence of 40 years for all cases. Children sentenced under this law will still face a much tougher penalty than adults who commit other types of serious, violent crimes.
The Supreme Court’s decision said that the harshest penalties for youth should be uncommon. Ultimately, only time will tell if judges fully use their discretion and hand down sentences that allow youth a meaningful opportunity at rehabilitation and release, or if they will continue the trend of handing down life sentences, which may only be solved through further litigation.
LB 44’s passage is an important step towards treating our kids like kids, and we should celebrate this very hard-fought victory. The bill also leaves much, much more work to do. It’s our hope the Legislature will keep looking for ways to make sure our court system remembers children are children no matter the circumstances.