What is the problem? Nebraska is one of 39 states in which children who are not yet 18 years of age can be tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison (life without possibility of parole). Because of their age and immature judgment, state statutes forbid the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to them. Yet the courts can hold them as fully responsible as an adult if they, tragically, commit first degree murder. Nebraska does not even have a minimum age at which a teen can be sentenced to life without parole. Teens who were age 13,14, and 15 at the time of their crimes are now serving life without parole sentences in Nebraska prisons. Some have been incarcerated for over 30 years.

Nebraska, the nation and the rest of the world: Twenty four former children are serving life without parole sentences in Nebraska prisons. In the United States there are 2,484. Outside of the United States there are none at all, according to researchers at the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco. Commendably, ten states either forbid life without parole for children or presently have none serving that sentence. The ten are: Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia. Washington, D.C. also has none.

What is wrong about an irreversible, life without parole sentence for child murderers? A life without parole sentence holds a child murderer responsible for his crime (as is necessary), but gives no recognition to the immaturity of teens who are under 18. An appropriate sentence for a child murderer should do both. While some child murderers may not reform in prison and must remain there, this is clearly not the case for all of them. Those who change can be responsible citizens and compassion for youth who make mistakes dictates that a second chance be given. An irreversible life without parole sentence makes that impossible.

How, then, can a state which cherishes children commit some to death in prison? Perhaps an answer might be because a child can commit crimes just as shocking and horrendous as those of adults. The child may even have pre-meditated the crime or may appear unrepentant. The public only sees the child at his or her worst. There is understandably great anger and a desire to punish. Perhaps also, the public mistakenly think that the possibility of parole is a guarantee of parole, which it is not, or that allowing the possibility of parole for a child murderer will somehow disrespect the grief of the victim’s family.

Nebraska LB 307 addresses the problem Instead of a life without parole sentence for child murderers this bill mandates 50 years to life in prison for those age 16 or 17 when they committed their crime, and 40 years to life in prison for those age 15 and under. The possibility of parole, then, assuming good behavior, would come after 25 or 20 years of incarceration, depending on the offender’s age. These are more appropriate terms of incarceration for child murderers – both holding them responsible for their crimes while giving recognition to their maturity level and continuing capacity for change.

What you can do to help: If you believe child murderers should receive a more appropriate sentence and the possibility of a second chance, please join the Nebraska Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children. As a member, you will receive continuing updates on the progress of the legislation and suggestions for action. Your membership in the Coalition, as an individual or through your organization, will show the legislators that there is public support for this change.