(TRENTON) – To assess whether changes should be brought to New Jersey’s criminal justice system, a resolution sponsored by Assembly Democrats Carol Murphy and Benjie Wimberly to establish a commission to review life sentences for juvenile offenders was signed into law on Monday by the Governor.
“In certain circumstances, long-term sentences can be an appropriate response to serious, violent crimes committed by an adult. But there is legitimate concern about the fairness of life sentences for juvenile offenders,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “Both the United States and New Jersey Supreme Courts have made recent rulings that bring into question the constitutionality of life sentences for juvenile offenders, and the appropriateness of lengthy sentences that don’t take into account factors like age and family life. We cannot ignore that.”
“This commission will tackle these hard questions to ensure that in our pursuit of justice, we are not failing to consider meaningful factors like the difference between the adult and adolescent brain before sending these young people to prison and throwing away the key,” she added.
The law (formerly resolution AJR-81) creates the “Commission to Review Constructive Sentences of Life Imprisonment on Juvenile Offenders” to examine sentencing and parole of juvenile offenders who are tried as adults for serious, violent crimes which may result in a constructive life term of imprisonment without a reasonable opportunity for parole.
The commission will make recommendations on how the laws may be adapted to grant these juveniles a reasonable chance for release when appropriate. Specifically, the commission would be required to:
1.evaluate the impact of recent United States (Miller v. Alabama) and New Jersey Supreme Court (State v. Zuber) rulings on juvenile offenders who are sentenced to constructive life terms of imprisonment without the possibility of parole and consider whether state criminal sentencing laws should be revised to take into account certain sentencing factors set forth in these cases;
2.assess whether the age of majority in the state is the appropriate age threshold under which the court would determine if “the mitigating qualities of youth” and these sentencing factors should be considered at sentencing or whether another approach is more appropriate;
3.identify and evaluate possible methods for providing persons currently serving constructive life terms of imprisonment for crimes committed as a juvenile a reasonable opportunity for release when appropriate, such as resentencing by the court or establishing statutory limits on parole ineligibility with retroactive applicability;
4.determine whether these juvenile defendants should have the right to legal counsel at court or parole hearings; and
5.consider the impact that juvenile resentencing or parole alternatives may have on the victims to ensure that any recommended reform satisfies the constitutional mandate to treat crime victims with fairness, compassion, and respect.
The law was prompted by recent court rulings which called into question life sentences for juveniles. In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. The ruling applied even to those persons who had committed murder as a juvenile, extending beyond the Graham v. Florida (2010) case, which had ruled juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional for crimes excluding murder. In State v. Zuber, the state Supreme Court ruled to overhaul the way judges in New Jersey sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead. The court ruled that judges must consider a number of factors — including age, family environment, and peer pressure — before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases.
“In light of recent court rulings on juvenile life sentences, it’s time for us to take a closer look at our criminal justice system in New Jersey and determine if reform is needed,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic). “The goal of this commission is to explore how we can ensure all New Jerseyans are treated fairly under our system and brought to reasonable, appropriate justice.”
The commission will consist of 15 members, including four legislators and six ex-officio members, including the Administrative Director of the Courts, the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Corrections, the Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission, the Public Defender, and the Chairman of the State Parole Board. An additional five public members would be appointed by the Governor, including a retired Superior Court judge, a county prosecutor, a victims’ rights advocate, a representative of a civil rights or social justice organization, and a state law school faculty member with expertise in juvenile justice issues. Members would serve without compensation, but may be reimbursed for necessary expenses incurred in the performance of their duties.
The commission will be required to organize soon after the appointment of its members, and report its finding and recommendations to the Governor and Legislature, including legislative proposals, within six months of its organizational meeting.
The commission will expire upon submission of this report.