The U.S. Supreme Court threw a sensitive issue back to the states last week, and Nebraska is one of many states trying to deal with it.

The court said it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to life in prison without parole. Doing so, the court ruled, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

So now 29 states, including Nebraska, are working to comply with the court’s ruling.

It’s not an easy issue. On one hand, “These aren’t shoplifters. These are people doing some really bad things,” as state Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said in legislative debate last week. These are killers, murderers who deserve harsh punishment.

The opposing argument is that these are people whose young age may have played a part in their terrible judgment in committing these murders. Their young age may be considered a mitigating factor in a sentence, as the court said.

In Nebraska, 27 inmates are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18.

The Nebraska Legislature has been wrestling with this issue. The Judiciary Committee proposed a 30-year minimum prison term. However, in debate on the floor, some lawmakers thought 30 years was too low because the inmate would be eligible for parole in 15 years. Nebraska law allows parole after half of a minimum sentence has been served, although few are released at that time.

So some legislators proposed increasing the minimum sentence to 60 years. In the end, senators agreed to a compromise of 40 years. Under the plan, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder could receive a sentence within the range of 40 years to life in prison.

This is a good compromise because it listened to all concerned and set the minimum sentence at a reasonable level for both sides.

— The Grand Island Independent, Nebraska, April 12

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