NJ Supreme Court Overhauls Life Sentences for Juveniles

Juveniles serving life without the possibility of parole in New Jersey prisons now have the opportunity to be released. The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently ruled in State v. Zuber that New Jersey judges must take age into account when imposing sentences that are functionally equivalent to life without parole.

Youthful offenders

As highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court, a “16-year-old and a 75-year old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only.” Accordingly, 19 states no longer impose life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.

Science confirms that adolescent brains function differently from those of adults. As explained by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, adolescence is largely defined by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” Given these factors, courts across the country have held that age should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.

Studies have also found that juvenile offenders often come from difficult backgrounds. According to findings from the Sentencing Project, nearly 80 percent witnessed violence in their homes regularly, and 47 percent were physically abused themselves. In addition, 40 percent had been enrolled in special education classes, and less than half were attending school at the time of their offense 

Supreme Court precedent

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In 2010’s Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment categorically forbids sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. In reaching its decision, the court concluded that none of the traditional goals of sentencing—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—justify life without parole for a juvenile.

In Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 decision, the court further held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” In light of the fact that mandatory sentences prevent consideration of the traits and mitigating qualities of youth, the decision established five factors that judges must consider in sentencing juveniles “to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Last year, the Supreme Court held that Miller should be applied retroactively. To comply, states need not resentence juveniles, but must provide opportunities for parole. In reaching its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana last year, the court noted that “allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity – and who have since matured – will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the 8th Amendment.” 

NJ Supreme Court’s decision

New Jersey is one of the first states to apply existing Supreme Court precedent to “virtual” life sentences. Citing Miller, the state’s highest court held that sentencing judges should consider the Miller factors when a juvenile faces a lengthy term of imprisonment that is the practical equivalent of life without parole. “The proper focus belongs on the amount of real time a juvenile will spend in jail and not on the formal label attached to his sentence,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote.

In light of its holding, the court directed that the two defendants be resentenced. When he was 17, Ricky Zuber was sentenced to 110 years in prison with 55 years of parole ineligibility for his role in two separate gang rapes. He would not have been eligible for parole until about he was 72 years old. James Comer participated in four armed robberies, one of which resulted in an accomplice shooting and killing a victim. Comer’s aggregate sentence was 75 years in prison with 68 years and 3 months of parole ineligibility. Comer would not be eligible for parole until 2068, when he would be 85 years old.

To address juvenile offenders in similar circumstances, the New Jersey Supreme Court suggested that the Legislature examine the issue. “To stave off possible future constitutional challenges to the current sentencing scheme, the Court asks the Legislature to consider enacting a statute that would provide for later review of juvenile sentences that have lengthy periods of parole ineligibility,” the opinion states.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, NJ-based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.