Nebraska senators took little time Thursday to advance a sentencing bill for juveniles who commit first-degree murder.
The vote to advance the bill to a second round of consideration came after two days of intense debate and deal-making on the floor -- and in the lobby and hallways.
"These are very difficult debates," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Ashford, who introduced the bill.
The bill (LB44) would change sentencing for juveniles from a mandatory life sentence to 40 years to life, with eligibility for parole after 20 years. Judges could continue to use discretion on life sentences for young people who commit first-degree murder. And they could sentence a youth to a number of years more than the minimum.
The bill grew out of the state's need to act on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, when the high court indicated states must provide some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. By making youth irrelevant to imposing a life sentence, there is too great a risk of disproportionate punishment, and thus it is unconstitutional, the court said.
The Judiciary Committee had advanced the bill to the full Legislature with an amendment that called for a sentence of 30 years to life. A number of amendments then put forth on the floor failed to change the sentence to a mandatory minimum or a higher minimum.
With this bill, the courts could consider mitigating factors in sentencing, such as age, maturity and home environment, including previous abuse of the juvenile.
If it passes two more rounds of debate and is signed by the governor, men and women serving mandatory life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder committed when they were juveniles could file requests to have their sentences reviewed.
Several of those inmates already have filed motions to correct illegal sentences, including Ahmad Jackson, Omaha, who was 16 at the time of his crime; Joseph McDonald, Omaha, who was 16; and Dwayne Tucker, Omaha, who was 17.
The bill doesn't address retroactive action for those inmates. Ashford has said the courts will have to do that.
"My guess is our district courts would do it. They'll apply it retroactively," he said.
The bill advanced on a 30-2 vote, with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers and Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber voting no and 11 senators present not voting.
Chambers said he did not like the 40-year minimum sentence. He expected, he said, that the Judiciary Committee planned to fight for the 30-year minimum. But a consensus was reached, and he said he was not going to stand in its way.
He would have preferred to let the bill die, and let the courts handle it, he said.
"Because I do not like the form of the bill, I will not vote for it. I will not speak for it," he said. "I will say that it is not what it ought to be. It is not what it could be."
Karpisek said a minimum of 40 years wasn't enough.
"I would have liked to have seen, maybe, 50 years for people over 16, 40 (years) for people under (16)," he said.
Adolescent brain science aside, the victim is still dead, Karpisek said.
"To me it is a punishment and some retribution," he said. "Maybe that's not the right way to look at this but that's how I feel."
The victim is not going to be able to come back in 20 or 40 years and get another chance, he said.