Reformers eye N.J.’s top court in push for shorter prison terms for juvenile offenders

Several cases heading to the New Jersey Supreme Court could widely impact juvenile incarceration

By: - August 31, 2021 7:02 am

The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

When Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver recently signed a new law intended to divert juvenile lawbreakers away from prison, a long line of legislators gave speeches to declare there are no disposable children in New Jersey and kids who make mistakes deserve a second chance.

But reformers say that’s not true in New Jersey for juveniles who committed crimes so serious they get tried and sentenced in adult court. The system locks many of those children away for decades — sometimes even life.

That violates an almost decade-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bans life without parole sentences for juveniles — and ignores a 2017 state ruling in which the New Jersey Supreme Court urged lawmakers to amend statutes to comply with the federal decision, reformers say.

Juvenile justice reformers now hope the New Jersey Supreme Court will — again — fix what state legislators have failed to address. The court will hear several cases in the coming months that challenge lengthy sentences for juveniles.

Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, applauded the federal and state top courts for recognizing that “children are different.”

“They are less culpable. They have profound potential for change,” Cohen said. “To sentence them to die in prison, without taking into account their lesser culpability and their potential to leave prison and lead not just law-abiding and productive lives but to be contributing and active members of the community, is profoundly unjust and a violation of human rights.”

Seeking relief through the courts

While New Jersey officially does not permit life sentences for juveniles, some judges order such long punishments that they become de facto life sentences, reformers say. Some don’t adequately weigh a juvenile offender’s youth in sentencing decisions, they add. And the law doesn’t require early or regular review to give juvenile offenders serving long adult sentences a meaningful opportunity for parole.

Those issues are ones the state’s top court four years ago exhorted lawmakers to fix when it ordered new sentencings for two Essex County men who committed crimes when they were 17 — Ricky Zuber, who was condemned to prison for 110 years for two 1981 gang rapes, and James Comer, who was sentenced to 75 years behind bars for his role in a deadly robbery spree in 2000.

In that ruling, the justices called on judges to weigh mitigating factors like immaturity, family and home environment, peer pressure, and the likelihood of rehabilitation. Those factors should prompt more leniency when deciding punishment for juveniles, the justices said.

“The court observes that some states have already acted and encourages the Legislature to examine this issue to avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future,” the justices warned.

The court has agreed to hear several cases soon that touch on lengthy sentences for juveniles, including:

  • State v. James Comer. The question facing justices: Is the state law that mandates a minimum of 30 years in prison without parole for adults who murder unconstitutional for juvenile offenders? Comer, 38, was sentenced to 75 years for four armed robberies, including one that turned deadly. He was sentenced to more time than his two accomplices; one pulled the trigger, the other was an adult.
  • State v. Samuel Ryan. The question: Can an offense committed as a juvenile be counted toward a life sentence under New Jersey’s “Three Strikes Law?” Samuel Ryan, 49, was sent to prison for life in 1997 for the armed robbery and attempted murder of a Bridgeton gas station attendant. It was his third armed robbery conviction; the first occurred when he was a juvenile.
  • State v. James C. Zarate. The question: Did the judge appropriately consider youth and was the sentence permissible given Zarate wasn’t deemed “permanently incorrigible,” or incapable of reform? Now 31, Zarate was 14 when he helped his brother beat, stab, and dismember a 16-year-old girl in 2005. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey also argues a 2015 state law bumping up to 15 the age allowable for juveniles to be tried as adults should be retroactive to defendants like Zarate.

Brain science should have every judge asking several questions before deciding a juvenile offender’s fate, Cohen said.

That science has driven the trend toward leniency for juvenile offenders. Researchers say people’s brains don’t fully develop until their mid 20s, and young people are more impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure, take more risks, and are less likely to make measured decisions or consider consequences. And, because the adolescent brain is still growing, teenagers have a great capacity to reform.

“How long is too long when the offender is a child?” Cohen said. “When youth are still changing and quite likely to simply outgrow the behavior that led them to the system in the first place, should we not have mandatory sentencing for youth in New Jersey and what would be the alternative for that? And if we do impose long terms, at what point should that sentence be reviewed and under what standard?”

Such questions are especially urgent in New Jersey, which has the highest racial disparity in youth incarceration in the nation, she added.

What I did at 15, boy, I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life paying for it.

– Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch

It’s unclear how many inmates in New Jersey are serving lengthy sentences for offenses committed when they were juveniles. Nearly 90 people are incarcerated now in state juvenile facilities after getting convicted in adult court, according to data posted online by the state Office of the Attorney General. But those figures don’t specify their sentences nor include people who have aged out of the juvenile facilities and now live in adult prisons. (Juveniles handed lengthy sentences generally get transferred to adult prisons at age 21 but can stay in juvenile facilities until age 25 under certain conditions.)

A legislative lapse

In other parts of the country, reformers have called on policymakers to cap sentences for juveniles to 20 years, raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and end the practice of transferring juveniles to adult court.

“There’s really no rehabilitative effect especially after 20 years — for everybody, not just juveniles,” said Riya Saha Shah, managing director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which advocates for reform nationally. “It’s really just punitive and vengeful, frankly, to keep someone in prison longer than that.”

But in New Jersey, while the Legislature has mulled some reforms, few have passed — even when there appear to be no hurdles.

One bill, for example, would give people sentenced to more than 30 years of incarceration for juvenile offenses an opportunity for resentencing after they’ve served 20 years. Although the Assembly approved it, the bill sits stalled in the Senate, despite having the support of both Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck and his predecessor, Gurbir Grewal.

Bruck, through a spokesman, on Monday repeated his support of the resentencing bill, one of several reforms recommended in a 2019 report by the bipartisan Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission.

“Those historic recommendations were endorsed by the state’s 21 county prosecutors. I continue to support these recommendations, which will help to ensure a more fair and equitable system of justice for all individuals and communities in New Jersey,” Bruck said in a statement.

Legislators count on the court to do their dirty work for them.

– Lawrence Lustberg, attorney

Some attribute the legislative inaction to lawmakers’ reluctance to enact reforms that would benefit offenders who have already been judged and sentenced.

“The political will is not there. It’s ‘once you’re in, we got ya!’ You’re a prisoner, and nobody is looking at you, because people think a prisoner equals a bad person,” said Bonnie Kerness, program director of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch in Newark. “What I did at 15, boy, I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life paying for it.”

Booting the responsibility for reform to the courts insulates lawmakers from any outcry that might arise from an unsympathetic public, said Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney who represents Comer. Legislators want to appear tough on crime because they have to run for re-election, he said.

“Legislators count on the court to do their dirty work for them,” Lustberg said.

Lustberg warned that reformers can no longer rely on the nation’s top court to protect juveniles the way it has in the past, with three new justices appointed by the Trump administration.

“As the U.S. Supreme Court turns to the right, these cases before the New Jersey Supreme Court are very important,” he said. “Every state has the right to interpret their own state’s constitution, and that’s what this is about now.”

That’s why advocates will be closely watching the coming challenges in the state Supreme Court.

“We have to recognize that the system is inherently racist and troubled,” Shah said. “The hope is that you have victories through the court system.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has limited harsh penalties for juveniles in a series of landmark cases since 2005, many of which centered on both brain science and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

With three new justices appointed during the Trump administration, the court is more conservative than it’s been in decades, prompting fears among reformers of a rollback in juvenile protections.

Key cases include:

  • Roper v. Simmons in 2005 banned executions for juveniles.
  • Graham v. Florida in 2009 banned life without parole sentences for crimes other than homicide for juveniles.
  • Miller v. Alabama in 2012 banned life without parole for juveniles for any crime, unless the offender is deemed to be “permanently incorrigible,” or incapable of reform.
  • Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2015 made the Miller ruling retroactive, clearing the way for people sentenced before 2012 to life without parole for juvenile offenses to seek resentencing.
  • Jones v. Mississippi, decided in April 2021, signaled the high court’s first shift away from leniency for juveniles. The justices ruled that juveniles convicted of murder can be sentenced to life in prison without parole without being found permanently incorrigible.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.