Senators compromise on juvenile sentencing after verbal fireworks

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April 9, 2013 - 5:21pm

The Nebraska Legislature moved Tuesday toward compromise on sentencing juveniles who commit serious crimes, but only after some harsh rhetoric and pushback involving Sen. Ernie Chambers

At issue is the minimum sentence for juveniles convicted of serious crimes, like murder. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said mandatory life sentences for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. So Nebraska lawmakers are trying to give judges a range of punishments they can impose, up to and including life.

The Judiciary Committee recommended beginning at 30 years. Committee chairman Brad Ashford defended that proposal. "Someone’s got to explain to me why a range of sentences between 30 years and life, when we’re dealing with juveniles, is not good public policy," Ashford said, adding that he did not understand the criticism. "The judge is going to make a decision, based upon the facts of that case, as to what the sentence should be."

Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue pointed out that with credit for good behavior in prison, a juvenile convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years could be eligible for parole in 15 years. Price worried about explaining that prospect to a murder victim’s family. "How do I look at a family and say 15 years, notwithstanding the rehabilitation of the individual which I’m sure we all hope and pray for?" he said. "I’m looking for something more than that."

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha attacked Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha for suggesting that a prisoner would get out as soon as he became eligible for parole. Chambers then took after Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff. "You had no evidence that anybody would get out upon reaching their eligibility date, did you?" he asked.

"But they have the option," Harms replied.

As Harms continued to resist, Chambers declared "I see all this vacillating by people who pretend to have principles, who pray every morning. Both of these men know better. They know that in Nebraska, nobody is going to get out" as soon as they become parole eligible.

Often, when Chambers attacks other senators, they ignore it. Harms did not. "I did want to comment just a moment on Sen. Chambers, in regard to attacking my values, my principles, my ethics and my religious beliefs," he said. "I don’t think you have the right to do that. I don’t think you should be doing that. And to stand there and call me ignorant, stupid, (demonstrating) an inability to read – I object to that, and I will tell you, that that’s not true."

Despite the verbal fireworks, lawmakers did make progress on the bill. Over the last two days, opponents of a minimum sentence of 30 years, meaning 15 years before the possibility of parole, have tried unsuccessfully to raise the minimum before possibility of parole to 30 years, then 25. But Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers agreed on a compromise amendment of 20 years. They then moved on to other subjects before reaching a first-round vote on the bill.

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