Today’s top honors go to Nebraska State Senator Dwite Pedersen, who has introduced a bill in the state legislature to abolish life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. (Secondary honors go to Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy for tipping me off to the news.)
The proposal, introduced only weeks after 19-year-old Robert Hawkins killed eight people in an Omaha mall, follows on the heels of a landmark report on reforming the state’s juvenile justice program (background on the Hawkins shooting and the Voices for Children report here).
As the Omaha World-Herald explains, Pedersen’s bill would allow parole hearings after twenty-five years for offenders who have been convicted of murder committed before they turned 18; Nebraska juveniles convicted for murder before 16 could be considered for parole after twenty years. According to the World-Herald, Pedersen said his bill would offer young offenders “only the possibility–not a guarantee–of eventual release.”
He said society should not hold offenders forever accountable for something done during their teenage years.
“Most of us who work with youth recognize it’s a young and dumb age,” said the lawmaker, who works as a drug and alcohol counselor with inmates.
“The body may be mature, but the mind is not matured. People do rehabilitate and they do change. Those of us who work in corrections would like to have those adolescent lifers to have something to work for.”
Juvienation readers know that I count myself among those who fervently believe young lifers, in Nebraska and elsewhere, deserve a second chance. As I wrote in November, in a post about a similar bill put forward by Illinois State Representative Robert Molaro,
If you agree, as the Supreme Court did, that juveniles are different from adults in that they are still developing, and are therefore less culpable for their behavior and more capable of rehabilitation, then it follows that the death penalty for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and must be abolished. And in the wake of Roper, of course, it follows that a sentence to death in prison is likewise unacceptable. There are currently at least 2,381 children serving such sentences in the United States; that is more than 99 percent of the juvenile offenders serving life without parole in the world.
The United States is by far the most egregious violator of what can fairly be described as a worldwide condemnation of life sentences for children, and it must be brought into compliance with evolving human rights standards. Whether a ban on this outmoded practice will come about by way of the courts or as the result of a wave of state legislation remains to be seen. That it is coming, I think, is beyond doubt.
To review the backlog of my posts on juvenile LWOP, click here.