Sentencing guideline for young offenders not retroactive, N.J. Supreme Court rules

By: - June 16, 2022 11:35 am

The statute is devoid of the slightest hint that the Legislature intended this specific mitigating factor to apply retroactively, Justice Anne Patterson wrote in the court's opinion. (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

A 2020 law allowing judges to reduce the criminal sentences of defendants under the age of 26 does not apply to those sentenced before its enactment, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The high court rejected an appeal from Rahee Lane, who asked the court to retroactively apply the rule intended to cut short the sentences of young offenders. But the statute is “devoid of the slightest hint” that the Legislature intended this specific mitigating factor to apply retroactively, Justice Anne Patterson wrote in the court’s opinion.

In 2015, Lane was arrested for his role in an Irvington home invasion robbery and charged with a 20-count indictment. He was 19 at the time of the offense. He pleaded guilty to four of the charges in 2017 and was issued a 14-year jail sentence.

He appealed the sentence, arguing in 2021 that the court should consider his age because of the 2020 law, but that argument was denied by the Appellate Division and on Wednesday by the Supreme Court.

The justices found the law’s plain language put the new mitigating factor into effect immediately but made no suggestion that it should apply retroactively, contrary to arguments from the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.

The high court found the state commission tasked with reviewing sentences in criminal cases did not recommend the mitigating factor on age should apply retroactively, though it did so with three other sentencing reform recommendations issued contemporaneously.

Justice Barry Albin, who is due to leave the court after hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70 on July 7, in a dissent argued appellate judges hearing cases after the law’s enactment should be able to consider a defendant’s age even if they were initially sentenced before the new mitigating factor was in place.

“Did the Legislature intend for the Appellate Division, reviewing a sentence after the new law went into effect, to close its eyes to a clearly excessive sentence because the trial judge did not take the defendant’s youth into account?” Albin wrote in his dissent. “Nothing in the language of the new law suggests the Legislature intended such an outcome.”

He noted the remainder of the court agreed judges could apply the factor when defendants are resentenced following a successful appeal of their conviction or sentence if that appeal does not hinge on their age at the time of the offense.

But he agreed with the rest of the justices in Lane’s case, noting the mitigating factor would likely not have reduced his sentence given the severity of his crimes.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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