The bill on sentencing juveniles who commit first-degree murder, which is advancing through the Legislature, from all indications will bring Nebraska into line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
That would achieve an important objective.
The nation's high court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
The opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan called for judges and juries to consider a juvenile's “chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” as well as family and home environment.
Laws that preclude consideration of “mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles” are unconstitutional, the high court said.
LB44 would change state law from a mandatory life sentence to 40 years to life, with eligibility for parole after 20 years.
It should be noted that a juvenile still could receive a life sentence under the bill, as well as a sentence of additional years beyond the minimum of 40 years in prison.
Some senators wanted a lower minimum. When the bill came out of the Judiciary Committee, it called for a minimum sentence of 30 years.
Setting the minimum at 40 years represents a compromise between senators who wanted tougher sentences and those who preferred that judges be given wider leeway in handing down sentences.
Nebraska was one of 29 states with juvenile sentencing laws struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.
Many of the affected states are struggling to react to the ruling. Pennsylvania set a minimum of 35 years. Wyoming and North Carolina set a minimum of 25 years.
In contrast, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the life sentences of 38 people convicted of murder to 60 years in prison. Reportedly, the Nebraska Board of Pardons was considering a similar move before the plan was sidelined in the courts.
Although LB44 would not be retroactive, it would provide guidance to Nebraska courts as they consider appeals expected by the 27 inmates serving sentences of life without parole for murders committed while they were juveniles.
The Journal Star Editorial Board preferred the 30-year minimum sentence as originally proposed by the Judiciary Committee.
But the bill that won first-round advancement on a 30-2 vote would improve criminal justice in the state, bringing needed latitude in sentencing based on research on adolescent brains. It deserves passage.