New prison sentences possible for N.J. juveniles in murder cases

A closeup of a gavel inside a court room

The gavel at the Norris Legislative Chamber in the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Juveniles who commit murder cannot be incarcerated for more than 20 years without being considered for resentencing or parole, a divided New Jersey Supreme Court ordered Monday in deciding cases involving two young offenders sentenced to much longer terms.

The broad ruling came in two appeals by men sentenced as juveniles in cases out of Essex and Morris counties, who argued their sentences constituted the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the state and federal constitutions. Exactly how many prisoners now serving sentences longer than 20 years will be impacted is unclear, but the ruling makes them eligible for reconsideration immediately.

Written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner for the 4-3 court, Monday’s decision recognizes the science involving children’s brain development.

“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,” Rabner wrote. “They are also more capable of change than adults. Yet we know as well that some juveniles — who commit very serious crimes and show no signs of maturity or rehabilitation over time — should serve lengthy periods of incarceration. The issue before the Court is how to meld those truths in a way that conforms to the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency. In other words, how to impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: 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.”

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While it stopped short of declaring the current mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years without parole for murder unconstitutional, the court ordered that juveniles given that sentence can seek a review once they have spent two decades in prison. A judge should then consider the mitigating factors of the prisoner’s youth as spelled out in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision against the crime that was committed and weigh the individual’s subsequent behavior while incarcerated in order to decide whether to reduce the sentence or parole the offender.

“A juvenile who played a central role in a heinous homicide and then had a history of problematic behavior in prison, and was found to be incorrigible at the time of the later hearing, would be an unlikely candidate for relief,” Rabner wrote. “On the other hand, a juvenile who originally acted in response to peer pressure and did not carry out a significant role in the homicide, and who presented proof at the hearing about how he had been rehabilitated and was now fit to reenter society after two decades, could be an appropriate candidate for a lesser sentence and a reduced parole bar.”

Power to change the rules

Writing for the dissenters, Associate Justice Lee Solomon argued that the court does not have the power to change the rules; that is up to the Legislature.

“A 30-year parole bar does not forever deny the defendant the right to reenter society,” Solomon wrote. “It does not render moot all a juvenile offender’s efforts to rehabilitate himself or to prove to society that he is no longer likely to pose a threat. But it is the product of a complex legislative decision, one that we owe deference to. Yet the majority decides that 30 years of parole ineligibility will not advance the goals of rehabilitation.”

But the Legislature has failed to do so, despite recommendations from the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission and pleas from social justice advocates.

“I think what they’re saying is the Legislature has had lots of opportunity to fix it, and they failed to do it,” said Alexander Shalom, an attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey who represented one of the appellants, James Comer, as well as filed an amicus brief for the ACLU. “So the judiciary can’t wait any longer and allow people to suffer under unconstitutional sentences. And so they’re fixing it the way they think the Legislature would want it. And if they’re wrong, then of course, the Legislature still has some opportunities to change it, but they have to change it within constitutional norms. And it’s the courts’ job to decide what the Constitution allows and what the Constitution forbids.”

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Comer, now 39, was 17 when he and two others participated in four armed robberies in April 2000. During one of those, an accomplice shot and killed a robbery victim in Kearny. Comer was prosecuted as an adult, convicted of felony murder and other charges and originally sentenced to 75 years in prison, 68 years without the possibility of parole. On an earlier appeal, that sentence was reduced to 30 years without parole, making him ineligible for release until April 2030.

James Zarate was 14 when he was convicted of murdering and dismembering a 16-year-old Randolph girl, stuffing her body into a foot locker and trying to throw it off a bridge with his older brother Jonathan Zarate in 2005. Now 31, James Zarate has been incarcerated since 2009 and must wait 26 years to be eligible for parole.

The court ruled both men are now entitled to be resentenced.

Jennifer Sellitti, of the state Office of the Public Defender, said the office is trying to figure out how many offenders may be impacted by the ruling. The office supports “the court’s recognition of the science, the law, and, most importantly, the role of mercy in our legal system,” she said.

“It is a decision that reflects what neuroscientists have known for years: juveniles are different,” Sellitti said. “Anyone who has spent time around teenagers knows that they act on impulse and are more likely than adults to engage in risky behavior. It is the reason the drinking age is 21 and the reason car rental companies do not rent automobiles to people under 25. Once the brain is fully developed at around age 27, the kind of reckless behavior associated with crime tapers off. A thorough review by a judge of the crime, the circumstances that led to it, the individual’s upbringing, and a record of twenty or more years in prison will give the judge the ample information to determine whether an individual is worthy of release.”

Other states have dealt with the issue

The court notes that other states have grappled with this issue: 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing juvenile offenders to be considered for release before the passage of 30 years and two state supreme courts — Iowa and Washington — have banned mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles.

“No one could possibly depreciate the seriousness of murder … but I do think the idea that age is irrelevant is a relic from the ‘80s ‘do the adult crime, do the adult time’ creed,” Shalom said, adding he hopes to get a judicial reevaluation of Comer’s sentence within a matter of months. “That philosophy predated our specific knowledge about the ways in which juvenile brain development impacts juvenile behavior.”

New Jersey’s judiciary and lawmakers have taken some steps to help juveniles. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has been pushing a number of reforms, including the closure of the state’s youth prisons in favor of more humane and rehabilitative solutions. The state is currently piloting restorative justice programs in four cities — Camden, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.

“The Zarate and Comer decisions are a positive step in recognizing that youth are fundamentally different than adults when it comes to decision making and should not be receiving adult prison sentences,” said Yannick Wood, director of the institute’s criminal justice reform program. “Instead, they should be afforded opportunities for rehabilitation. We implore judges to review long unjust sentences for youth and to release them … There are no throwaway kids.”

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