LINCOLN, Neb. — Nearly all of the Nebraska prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles got new sentences in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but for some it made little difference.
Nebraska lawmakers overhauled the state’s sentencing laws in 2013 in response to the high court’s ruling the previous year that banned mandatory life sentences for crimes committed at age 17 or younger.
Last year, the court said the ruling was retroactive for the more than 2,000 offenders serving such sentences nationwide, and that all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance at parole one day. The court found that the harshest punishments levied against adult criminal offenders are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual when imposed on juveniles because of their lack of development and potential for change.
The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are responding to the Supreme Court’s mandate. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves. Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.
Here is a guide to the situation in Nebraska.
Nebraska’s 2013 law eliminated mandatory life without parole for juveniles and set a new sentencing range of 40 years to life for those who commit first-degree murder or kidnapping. The law requires judges to consider mitigating factors before sentencing, including the offender’s age, ability to appreciate risks and consequences, intellectual capacity and mental health. It also requires the state parole board to review these inmates’ cases once a year after they begin serving their sentences and consider similar mitigating factors.
WHERE THINGS STAND
Nebraska has 22 inmates still in prison who had been sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles, said Jeffery Pickens, chief legal counsel for the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. Of those, all but three have been resentenced. Pickens said one of the three was declared incompetent to stand for a new sentencing hearing. He said it isn’t clear why the other two have not been resentenced.
Nebraska’s updated law still gives judges the chance to impose life without parole, but none of the affected inmates has received that sentence, Pickens said. However, he said, some were given such long prison terms that they’re effectively life sentences. Two got 90 years to life; one, 80 to life; one, 70 to life; and one, two consecutive sentences of 45 to life. Many will be parole eligible in the next 20 years.
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