Justices give hope to juvenile offenders, allow sentencing review after 20 years

Dissenting opinion says court is acting as legislators, not judges

By: - January 10, 2022 12:13 pm

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that juvenile offenders serving lengthy prison sentences may ask for sentencing review after they’ve served 20 years behind bars, a decision juvenile justice reformers celebrated as overdue recognition that children don’t deserve to be locked away for life.

The ruling stems from the cases of James Comer, who was 17 when he was sentenced to 75 years behind bars for a deadly robbery spree in 2000, and James Zarate, who was 14 when he and his brother beat and murdered a 16-year-old girl in 2005.

The court ordered new sentencings for both men, agreeing in Comer’s case that juveniles shouldn’t face the same mandatory sentences adults face and that courts must weigh a juvenile’s immaturity and other “hallmark features” of youth in setting punishment, as they failed to do adequately for Zarate.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, writing for the majority, said juveniles can petition for a hearing after they’ve served 20 years in prison. Judges can then consider whether the defendant has matured and reformed; appreciates risks and consequences; and has behaved well in prison, plus other factors that couldn’t be fully considered decades earlier. The court can then affirm or reduce a defendant’s original sentence.

“We cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to re-enter society,” Rabner wrote in a ruling backed by Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Barry T. Albin, and Fabiana Pierre-Louis.

Three justices dissented, agreeing with the state that the matter should be decided by legislators, not the courts.

“We acknowledge our colleagues’ view that the New Jersey Constitution permits our intervention here. But we are not legislators imbued by our Constitution with such authority. In our view, the majority today act ‘as legislators’ instead of as judges,” Justice Lee Solomon wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Anne M. Patterson and Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina.

Reformers have complained that legislators have long failed to act to ensure New Jersey complies with a decade-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bans life without parole sentences for juveniles. Monday’s ruling comes five years, almost to the day, after the same court in 2017 urged lawmakers to amend statutes to comply with the federal decision.

Attorney Alexander Shalom, who has represented Comer for about eight years, said he was “elated” by the ruling. Shalom, director of Supreme Court advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, also filed an amicus brief in Zarate’s case.

“This ruling means that juvenile offenders have hope. It means that juvenile offenders can demonstrate that the person they were at 14 is not the person they are anymore, when they’re 25, 30, whatever,” Shalom said. “This doesn’t mean they will be released, but it means that the people who have done the best at maturation and reform — at becoming adults — will have a chance to demonstrate that they have been redeemed.”

Comer has served 22 years of his sentence, so Shalom said he plans to petition for a hearing before the trial judge, unless they can reach an agreement with prosecutors in the case.

Shalom said he expects Monday’s ruling could have an immediate impact for about 200 inmates sentenced to long sentences for offenses they committed as juveniles.

Attorney Lawrence Lustberg served as co-counsel on the Comer case.

“This is a historic ruling,” Lustberg said. “Juveniles should not be treated as adults for the purposes of imposing long sentences that cannot be revisited for a long period of time. The idea that juveniles’ brains change and after 20 years they can be reevaluated for whether they’re dangerous and whether continued imprisonment serves any public good, it’s extraordinary that the court has seen fit to go as far as they did.”


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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.