Bill would exclude juveniles from N.J.’s three-strikes law

By: - October 4, 2022 7:13 am

There is no circumstance under which a judge should be forced to sentence a 23-year-old to life without parole, said Sen. Sandra Cunningham. (Photo by Edwin Torres | New Jersey Governor's Office)

Crimes juveniles commit wouldn’t count against them under the state’s “three-strikes law,” under new legislation intended to reverse a recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

A bill introduced Thursday by Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham (D-Hudson) would exclude juvenile convictions from the Persistent Offenders Accountability Act, the 1995 law that requires judges to imprison someone for life without parole if they’re convicted of three serious, unrelated crimes, such as murder, sexual assault, carjacking, and first-degree robbery or kidnapping.

The bill is intended to undo a February ruling in which a divided Supreme Court upheld the sentence of Samuel Ryan, who was 23 when he was locked up for life after his third armed robbery conviction. Ryan appealed because he was 16 when he committed his first robbery.

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and New Jersey Supreme Courts have decreed life imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Two dissenting justices agreed with Ryan that his teenage conviction shouldn’t carry the same weight as his adult convictions, saying his sentence was “at odds with the evolving standards of decency.” In that dissent, Justice Barry Albin, who has since retired, urged legislators to correct the state’s “inconsistent approach” in using juvenile convictions to set sentences.

But the court’s majority noted that two of Ryan’s three crimes were committed when he was an adult, and said his stint in jail for the crime he committed as a juvenile showed he was “undeterred by incarceration.”

Cunningham said Monday that while someone’s criminal history should inform sentencing decisions, her bill would give judges more leeway to decide what’s fair.

“Any offenses that occur before someone turns 18 should not count as strikes against them. There is no circumstance under which a judge should be forced to sentence a 23-year-old to life without parole,” Cunningham said.

Laura Cohen, who directs Rutgers Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic and the Rutgers Center on Criminal Justice, Youth Rights, and Race, filed a brief in the case supporting Ryan.

She applauded the bill as a remedy to “a fundamental flaw in New Jersey’s criminal code.”

“The ‘three strikes’ law generally is overbroad, ineffective, and inhumane, but when applied to crimes committed by young people, who the Supreme Court has repeatedly found to be less culpable and have a greater capacity for change than adults, it also is irrational and unjust,” Cohen said.

The bill was referred to the Senate’s judiciary committee. An Assembly companion hasn’t been introduced.


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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.