Court: juvenile offenses count as ‘strike’ under ‘three strikes’ law targeting repeat offenders

By: - February 8, 2022 6:55 am

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Lee Solomon (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday judges can count crimes repeat offenders commit as juveniles when weighing whether they deserve to be locked away for life under the state’s “three strikes” law.

Two justices dissented in the split ruling, citing the top court’s decision last month finding lifetime imprisonment for youthful offenses is an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” because children don’t deserve the same penalties as adults.

But Justice Lee Solomon, writing for the court’s majority, noted the defendant in the case before the justices committed his two most recent offenses as an adult, after he’d served more than three years behind bars for his juvenile offenses.

“Defendant was not only undeterred by incarceration, but his crimes committed after release from state prison grew increasingly violent,” Solomon wrote.

Solomon also pointed out most states with similar three-strikes legislation count juvenile convictions as strikes. The state has a legitimate “penological objective of incapacitating recidivist offenders, who pose a particular danger to society,” Solomon added.

Monday’s ruling stems from the 2018 appeal of Samuel Ryan, now 49, who was 23 when he robbed and shot a Bridgeton gas station clerk in 1996. A Cumberland County judge sentenced him to life without parole for the crime, which the victim survived, because it was his third armed robbery conviction. He had committed an armed robbery at a Vineland Wawa a few weeks earlier, and a two-count conviction for the same offense when he was 16.

Monday’s ruling affirms a 2020 appellate decision denying Ryan’s plea for relief — his 12th since his 1997 sentencing. Ryan had argued offenses he committed as a juvenile shouldn’t have counted against him under the state’s three-strikes law, because mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.

New Jersey’s three-strikes law, passed in 1995, was intended to protect the public from people who repeatedly commit serious crimes. It sets a mandatory sentence of life without parole for anyone convicted three times of murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, or robbery.

Justices Barry Albin and Fabiana Pierre-Louis dissented Monday, saying it is “at odds with the evolving standards of decency” to give Ryan’s juvenile offenses equal weight with his adult crimes.

“No one disputes that Ryan has committed serious crimes warranting punishment and a lengthy sentence,” Albin wrote. “But a law that mechanically imposes a grossly disproportionate sentence, a law that strips a court from considering the incapacitating element of youth, and a law that denies the court all discretion in fashioning a sentence based on a youthful conviction cannot be reconciled with our federal or state constitutional jurisprudence.”

Albin pointed to criminal sentencing reforms, signed in October 2020, that require judges to weigh youth as a mitigating factor when setting sentences for defendants who were 25 or younger when they committed their crime. Albin in his dissent quoted Gov. Phil Murphy, who said then: “The social, emotional, and mental maturity of a youthful defendant is complex and nuanced. That very fact makes it critical for the age of a defendant to be factored by the court in criminal culpability.”

New Jersey “takes an inconsistent approach” to using juvenile convictions in setting sentences, Albin argued, adding legislators should act to fix the inconsistencies.


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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.