This past November, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Kiriakakis. There the Court upheld the constitutionality of a sentence within the range authorized by a jury verdict that included a mandatory period of parole ineligibility, or parole disqualifier.
Understanding this holding requires a review of basic sentencing concepts. First, the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice authorizes ranges of sentences for different degrees of criminal offenses. Generally speaking, someone convicted of a fourth degree offense can receive a sentence of up to 18 months. A third degree offender can receive a sentence within a range of three to five years. A second degree offender can be sentenced to between five and ten years. With some notable exceptions not relevant here, a first degree offender can be sentenced within a range of ten to twenty years. A sentence for a particular defendant within the statutory range is supposed to be based upon a balancing of aggravating and mitigating factors that are also listed in the sentencing section of the Code. These factors are supposed to help guide the judge to customize the sentence to the needs of the case. Our judges have considerable discretion to impose sentences within the applicable statutory ranges, so long as they follow the proper procedures.
Sentencing involves more than just setting a number within a range based upon a balancing of factors listed in the statute. Some sentences are a “flat” number, which is simply a term of years standing alone. However, sentences can, and often are, composed of two separate numbers. The “top” number is the highest or outside number of years that a defendant will serve. The “bottom” number is the amount of time that a defendant must serve before becoming eligible for parole. The latter may be referreed to as a “period of parole ineligibility”, “parole disqualifier”, or “stip”. (Both of these numbers can be reduced by “credits”, but that issue is not relevant here). Continue reading