By Susan Szalewski
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
For State Sen. Brenda Council, it's common sense: Criminals under the age of 18 should not be sentenced to life in prison without a chance at parole.
Her reasoning: While their crimes as teenagers were horrendous, people mature, changing dramatically from their teen years to mid-30s, 40s or 50s.
Studies have shown that a teen's brain is not fully developed. Youths face pressures from gangs and peers. Imprisoning a person for decades is costly.
The sentence amounts to ‘death by incarceration,’ she said.
Still, Council acknowledges, her view is unpopular in Nebraska, one of the states that allow young people to be sentenced to life without a chance for parole.
Even so, Council plans to submit a bill during the next legislative session that would change sentencing guidelines. Those convicted as teens — or younger — should at least get a parole hearing some years down the road, she said. Her proposed bill would not guarantee parole.
About 25 people joined the Omaha legislator Monday evening at a panel discusion on how to help the underdog proposal make it into state law. Those in attendance included another state senator, Bob Krist; Family members of some of the 27 people in Nebraska sentenced as juveniles to life; and even a mother who has become an advocate for the man who helped kill her son when both were teens.
The Rev. Val Peter, former executive director of Boys Town, moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the Nebraska Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Voices for Children in Nebraska assisted.
Council submitted a measure on the issue last year but pulled it after it was clear it would fail.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last spring that a life sentence without parole for juveniles who have committed crimes other than murder violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Jeremy Herman is Nebraska's only case of a juvenile sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime other than murder. He was convicted of kidnapping.
His victim's mother has become an unlikely advocate for him.
Mona Schlautman of Council Bluffs attended Monday's meeting on behalf of Herman. She was living in Omaha when her oldest son, 15-year-old Jeremy Drake, was led to his death by the then-17-year-old Herman.
Herman is now 35.
He joined a friend, Christopher Masters, in beating Drake before Masters shot him, Schlautman said.
The mother said she knew Herman. He had been at her home several times and even brought pizza for the family once, she said. Schlautman also said she knew he was a rough kid who grew up in a broken home.
She said she told Herman at his sentencing that she had forgiven him. She said she had to, as a part of her spirituality and as an example for her three younger children. ‘I knew ... it was the right thing to do.’
Years later, Herman sought out his victim's mother. She eventually befriended him and has tried to help him, including the recent push to end the life-without-parole sentences. Schlautman said she has preferred to keep a low profile. ‘It's hard to make friends over this,’ she said of her controversial role. But now might be time to speak out, she said. "
(Via .Omaha World-Herald)