Senators debate sentencing for juvenile murderers

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April 8, 2013 - 5:45pm

The Nebraska Legislature grappled Monday with how long someone convicted of murder or other serious crimes before reaching age 18 should spend in prison.

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.

The Judiciary Committee has proposed giving judges discretion, 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 would have to consider a list of mitigating circumstances, including the person’s "impetuousity."

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," he said.

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. 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 the same sentence?" he asked.

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 as 30 years with time off for good behavior.

‘We are dealing with the most horrific crimes. One gentleman was sentenced after shooting a woman while trying to take her person. 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," he 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," he declared.

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

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