NJ Children With Long Prison Sentences To Get Review After 20 Years

New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years on a child is unconstitutional.
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Photo: EJI

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years on a child is unconstitutional. People sentenced when they were children are now entitled to have their sentences reviewed after 20 years.

The court’s decision, issued in January, combined two cases in which children were sentenced under a New Jersey statute that required them to serve a minimum of 30 years without any chance for parole.

James Comer was 17 when he was involved in a robbery with another person who fatally shot a robbery victim. He was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 30 years without parole for felony murder.

James Zarate was convicted of participating in a murder with his older brother in 2005, when he was just 14 years old, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, with no parole for 42.5 years.

They asked the court to find that a mandatory sentence of 30 years without parole is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles.

The court agreed that the mandatory scheme violates the state constitution, pointing to two areas of constitutional concern.

First, both U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the state court’s own caselaw require sentencing courts to consider “what we all know from life experience—that children are different from adults. Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions. They are also more capable of change than adults.”

But under the mandatory sentencing scheme, sentencing judges had no discretion to assess a child’s individual circumstances or to consider how a particular child differs from adults before imposing a sentence of three decades in prison without parole.

Second, “courts cannot determine at the outset that a juvenile will never be fit to reenter society”—in fact, the court observed, “it is difficult even for experts to assess whether a juvenile’s criminal behavior is a sign of transient immaturity or irreparable corruption.”

Because “we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society,” the court found that the sentencing judge’s inability to review the original sentence later to assess whether the person has matured or shown proof of rehabilitation also rendered the sentencing statute unconstitutional.

Rather than strike down the statute, the court decided to permit juvenile offenders to petition for a review of their sentences after they have served 20 years in prison.

In reaching that timing, the court observed that New Jersey lawmakers set a 20-year maximum sentence for murder for a child tried in juvenile court, and set the maximum for felony murder at 10 years, which “reflect[s] the Legislature’s view that a juvenile who has deliberately taken someone’s life should not serve more than two decades in prison.”

It also noted that 13 states and Washington, D.C., now have statutes that allow people convicted when they were children to be considered for release before 30 years have passed. Two other state supreme courts—in Iowa and Washington—have banned mandatory minimum sentences for children.

At the sentencing review hearing, the petitioners will have had two decades to demonstrate how they have matured or rehabilitated, the court wrote. The trial court will be in a position to assess maturity and rehabilitation and determine “whether the adult before them is or will be able to reenter society.”

The court will have discretion to affirm or reduce the original base sentence within the statutory range and to reduce the period of parole ineligibility to less than 30 years.

Alexander Shalom, director of Supreme Court advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, represents James Comer.

“This ruling means that juvenile offenders have hope,” he told the New Jersey Monitor. “It means that juvenile offenders can demonstrate that the person they were at 14 is not the person they are anymore.”

He said the ruling could impact about 200 people sentenced to long sentences for offenses when they were children.

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