The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously held that judges must consider how children are different, and how those differences weigh against condemning them to die in prison, before sentencing a child to decades in prison. “We believe that youth matters in each case that calls for a lengthy sentence that is the practical equivalent of life without parole,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court.
The decision consolidated two cases, both involving 17-year-olds. Ricky Zuber was sentenced for two separate nonhomicide offenses to a total of 110 years in prison with 55 years before he is eligible for parole, at age 72. James Comer was sentenced to 75 years, with 68 years of parole ineligibility, for participating in four armed robberies, including one in which an accomplice fatally shot a victim, making him ineligible for parole until he is 85 years old.
The court held that recent United States Supreme Court cases barring life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders and automatic life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles apply “with equal strength to a sentence that is the practical equivalent of life without parole.” The court rejected the State’s argument that only life-without-parole sentences are subject to constitutional scrutiny, writing that “[t]he 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.”
The constitutional mandate to take into account how children are different in sentencing, the court concluded, applies broadly “to cases in which a defendant commits multiple offenses during a single criminal episode; to cases in which a defendant commits multiple offenses on different occasions; and to homicide and non-homicide cases.” The court directed sentencing judges to “exercise a heightened level of care before they impose multiple consecutive sentences on juveniles which would result in lengthy jail terms.”
The majority of jurisdictions that have considered this question have held that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama apply to de facto life-without-parole sentences, including California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, and Wyoming.
The Washington Supreme Court also joined that majority last week, holding that “every juvenile offender facing a literal or de facto life-without-parole sentence is automatically entitled to a Miller hearing [at which] the court must meaningfully consider how juveniles are different from adults, how those differences apply to the facts of the case, and whether those facts present the uncommon situation where a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile homicide offender is constitutionally permissible.”
New Jersey’s high court also asked state legislators to consider enacting a statute that would provide for later review of juvenile sentences that have lengthy periods of parole ineligibility, noting that several states have adopted similar legislation in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decisions.