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January 12, 2017

New Jersey Supreme Court addresses Miller's application to all serious juve sentencings

As reported in this local article, the top court in the Garden State "ruled unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the way New Jersey judges sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead." Here is more from the press report on the opinion:

The state's highest court ruled 7-0 that judges must consider a number of factors -- including age, family environment, and peer pressure -- before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases. Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, said this is "one of the most significant sentencing decisions" the court has made in "many years."

And in a rare move, the court also urged the New Jersey Legislature to revise the state's current law on juvenile sentencing to "avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future," according to the decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The decision is the result of appeals filed by a pair of men who were convicted separately of violent crimes years ago in Essex County when they were 17 and were sentenced to decades in prison. Ricky Zuber was convicted for his role in two gang rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. He would not have been eligible for parole for 55 years -- a time when he would be 72. James Comer was convicted of four armed robberies in 2000, including one where an accomplice shot and killed a victim. He would have become eligible for parole when he was 85 -- after having served 68 years.

Rabner wrote that judges in both cases did not take "age or related circumstances" into account when issuing the sentences. But, Rabner said, the U.S. Supreme Court has since "sent a clear message" that "children are different" from adults and that "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered when sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole.

"Because of their young age at the time of their crimes, both defendants can expect to spend more than a half century in jail before they may be released -- longer than the time served by some adults convicted of first-degree murder," Rabner wrote.

Rabner cited how in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges presiding over cases involving juveniles facing life sentences without parole must consider a number of factors before sentencing. Those include immaturity; family and home environment; family and peer pressures; an"inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or their own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation."

But New Jersey's Supreme Court went further, saying those standards must be applied not only to sentences of life without parole but also to youths who face lengthy sentences. The court also cited a the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects defendants from "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Youth matters under the constitution," Rabner wrote.

The full opinion is available at this link, and it covers a lot of important post-Graham and post-Miller ground concerning juvenile sentencing.

January 12, 2017 at 10:43 AM | Permalink

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