Proposals heard on young criminals, sex trafficking victims, affirmative consent

Sen. Kate Bolz discusses parole eligibility for youthful offenders (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 9, 2018 - 4:15pm

Young people convicted of serious crimes could be eligible for parole earlier, and victims of sex trafficking could have their criminal records kept confidential, under proposals heard by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Friday.

Sen. Kate Bolz introduced the proposal for earlier parole eligibility for people under 18 convicted of serious crimes. Currently, in the most extreme cases, a young person convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to life in prison. Bolz’ proposal would require a minimum sentence of 40 years, meaning that with good behavior, someone could be eligible for parole after 20 years.  Bolz says the state treats those under 18 as too immature to buy tobacco or alcohol, but treats them as adults for serious crimes.

Scout Richter of ACLU Nebraska supported the bill. “Brain development science tells us that there are fundamental differences between the adult brain and the teenage brain. We know that portions of the brain that are responsible for decision making and evaluating consequences of actions are not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s. This also means that young people have a greater potential for rehabilitation,” she said.

Douglas County Public Defender Thomas Riley also supported the bill on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. Riley talked about people he knows who were resentenced after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. He said in virtually every case, they got in trouble in prison for the first five to seven years, but then settled down when they hit their mid-twenties, consistent with the science about brain development.

Sen. Steve Halloran said he understands compassion for young offenders, but that shouldn’t be the sole focus. “I just from time to time have to ask where is the compassion for the victims of the crime? Oftentimes the victim’s dead, but the family, survivors – where is the compassion for them?” Halloran asked.

Riley said victims’ families already have the right to participate in legal proceedings, but that shouldn’t determine sentences. “Whenever I’m picking a jury, I tell the jurors we can all have compassion, but we have to be dispassionate when we’re doing our jobs,” he said.

Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska attorney general’s office opposed the bill, saying judges already have the discretion to take offenders age and circumstances into account in sentencing. Also testifying against the bill was Liddie Daniels, who said her older brother was murdered over 20 years ago. Daniels opposed making a murderer eligible for parole after 20 years. “Twenty years for taking away someone’s life – an innocent person – it’s not enough. And I’m not ready to run into this man on the streets,” Daniels said, adding that she thinks victim’s feelings are not considered.

Bolz said just because people would be eligible for a parole hearing does not necessarily mean they would be released.

Also testifying on the bill was Eric Alexander, who said he spent 25 years in prison after serving as a lookout in a convenience store robbery during which a store owner Charles Cantrell was killed. Alexander now works in a program to prevent youth from making the same mistakes he did. “Children who commit these types of offenses, we’re better than the worst act that we’ve ever committed. We’re better than that. We just have to mature,” Alexander said. “I made a promise to the victim’s family: Because I was part of a situation that took a life, I will dedicate the rest of my life -- and I’m 42 years old. I don’t know how much longer I (will) live -- but every day I walk is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Cantrell and my kids,” he added.

Committee members also heard testimony on other proposals, including one that would allow victims of sexual trafficking to have their own records of crimes set aside and sealed. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, the bill’s sponsor, said 91 percent of sex trafficking victims have criminal records. “These charges generally include prostitution because of the acts their traffickers forced them to commit; theft charges because they know they’ll face violence if they don’t meet their nightly quotas; drug charges because of the addictions their traffickers have forced upon them to coerce compliance, and the list goes on and on,” she said.

To see an NET documentary on sex trafficking, click here.

The proposal drew support from victims and advocacy organizations, who said it would prevent victims from being rejected for housing by landlords, or for jobs by employers, based on their criminal history. It was opposed by Shawn Renner representing Media of Nebraska, an organization that includes NET News. Renner said he took no position on allowing convictions to be set aside, but objected to having records sealed, which he said would hurt citizens’ ability to see how their government works.

And the committee heard testimony on another proposal by Sen. Pansing Brooks, to change the legal standard of consent for sexual activity. Current law requires victims of sexual assault to express a lack of consent, either verbally or physically; the proposal would replace that with a standard of affirmative consent, where someone would need to say yes, verbally or through their actions.

Supporters said victims are sometimes unable to say no, either through fear or intoxication, and the new approach would be consistent with changed social attitudes, exemplified by the #Metoo movement. Opponents said the change risked reversing the presumption of innocence and making someone guilty unless they could prove their innocence.

The committee took no immediate action on any of the proposals.  










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