Tecumseh prison

A State Patrol helicopter hovers above the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution on March 2.

ROBERT BECKER, For the Journal Star

Criminal justice reform is gaining steam nationwide by uniting those concerned about the financial cost of mass incarceration with advocates troubled by its human cost.

Many times, those overlap.

One such instance can be found in a bill before the Nebraska Legislature that would end the use of life sentences without the possibility for parole for juveniles. Approving this measure would add Nebraska to the growing list of states ending a practice increasingly deemed unconstitutional through a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years.

These are children. Those found guilty of committing murders, rapes or other serious crimes deserve to serve time for their actions – but acts, no matter how violent, committed before these minors have legally or developmentally entered adulthood, mustn’t be the end of their lives.

Nebraska had 27 such inmates when the Supreme Court declared in 2012 that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. The agency reports four have been released, four have been resentenced and the other 19 remain in prison but are eligible for parole.

The number of these prisoners is small. But, because of the lengths of their sentences, they represent a significant cost to taxpayers.

Yes, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars – if not $1 million or more – to house an inmate for several decades. From a financial perspective, that dollar figure is magnified by the lost contributions that could be generated if these individuals were successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

After all, with words such as “correctional” and “reformatory” adorning prisons’ formal names, the justice system is designed to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes that landed them behind bars. Inmates who have the chance to one day be released have all the inspiration they need improve

To deny the youngest offenders even the ability to atone for and improve from their crimes runs counter to its stated mission.

Under Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz’s LB875, life sentences remain a possible maximum sentence for juveniles convicted of the most severe crimes. The difference is that her bill ensures the minimum sentence can’t also be life.

Those who cause chaos while in prison or fail to demonstrate remorse may never be paroled – but at least they can earn the opportunity. All offenders who committed their crimes before they reached adulthood deserve that light at the end of the tunnel.

A wave of states is amending their sentencing laws to reflect the Supreme Court’s decisions, with Missouri the only bordering state that still permits this practice. Nebraska should be next to dump harsh sentencing for juveniles in a move that saves dollars and makes sense.


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