New Jersey Adopts Federal Standard for Sentencing Juvenile Defendants Found Guilty of Crimes that Carry Life Sentences

I have never believed that most lawyers or judges take juvenile delinquency cases seriously.  Many of them frequently refer to these matters as “kiddie crime”.  Indeed, it is not unusual for a judge who has sat in an adult criminal trial court to feel offended as a result of being transferred to a juvenile court.

Attorneys and judges who have such views of the juvenile justice system have, however, failed to see its importance.  One of the system’s most significant functions is to prevent juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders.  It is generally believed that a juvenile who is charged with acts of delinquency is more susceptible to rehabilitation because they are young, and the probability of successful rehabilitation decreases as the juvenile moves toward, and eventually attains, adulthood.  Thus, successfully retraining and rehabilitating juvenile offenders while they are still relatively young reduces the likelihood that they will incur criminal charges as an adult.  The theory is simple – offending behavior that is corrected at an early stage in life will remain corrected.

Nevertheless, there are juveniles who commit the most serious crimes regardless of their age and relative inexperience.  These crimes include murder, armed robbery and sex offenses.  Juvenile offenders who engage is such conduct are typically “waived up” to the adult court, where they are subjected to the adult criminal process like any other adult criminal defendant.  Must we somehow balance the fact that they were juveniles when they committed their crimes against the severity of their offenses?

The United States Supreme Court has answered this question affirmatively.  In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Court declared that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to death.  In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Court held that juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses cannot be sentenced to life without parole.  Most recently, in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), the Court found that a sentencing judge must consider “youth and its attendant characteristics” prior to sentencing a juvenile to life without parole.  In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Court applied Miller retroactively.

The Miller Court looked at a series of factors that place juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes in a different light.  These include the juvenile’s age and the accompanying immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; the family and home environment, which can be brutal and dysfunctional; the extent to which familial and peer pressure influenced the juvenile’s conduct in the offense; the fact that s/he may have been charged with and/or convicted of a lesser offense had s/he dealt differently with the police, prosecutors or defense attorneys, and; the possibility of rehabilitation.  Significantly, Miller did not “foreclose” the possibility of a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile; rather, it required sentencing judges “to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to s lifetime in prison.”  Thus, even under Miller, a juvenile can still receive a substantial prison sentence.  However, the sentencing judge must find that such a sentence is warranted after analyzing the juvenile’s case using the foregoing factors.

In two recently decided companion cases, State v. Zuber and State v. Comer, both decided January 11, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the holding in Miller in cases where the juvenile receives the functional equivalent of a life sentence.

Ricky Zuber took part in two gang rapes in 1981, when he was 17, and was sentenced to 110 years in prison with a 55-year parole disqualifier.  Under that sentence, Zuber would not be parole eligible until 2036, when he would be 72.  James Comer and an accomplice committed four armed robberies, one of which ended with the shooting death of the victim.   He was sentenced to a custodial term of 75 years, with a 68-year parole disqualifier.  Under that sentence, Comer would not be eligible for parole until 2068, when he would be 85.  Both defendants challenged the propriety of their respective sentences, and the cases were eventually heard by our Supreme Court.

In reviewing the sentences, the Court found that Miller applies to cases in which juvenile defendants receive the equivalent of life without parole sentences, regardless of the fact that the sentences imposed may not carry that formal label.  The Court then observed that State v. Yarbough, 100 N.J. 627 (1985), set criteria for imposing consecutive sentences, and then held that our courts must consider both the Yarbough factors and the Miller criteria before sentencing juveniles to prison sentences that carry consecutive sentences and/or long terms of parole ineligibility.  Trial judges must exercise a heightened level of care before sentencing juveniles to multiple consecutive terms, and must also assess the juvenile as an individual prior to sentencing.  Both cases were remanded for resentencing.

Zuber/Comer does NOT mean that juveniles cannot be sentenced to long custodial terms with lengthy parole disqualifiers.  Rather, the cases require our trial judges to conduct a more thorough analysis of the juvenile and the case before imposing such a sentence.  It remains the defense attorney’s job to make a thorough record at sentencing so as to preserve for appeal issues and arguments relating to excessive sentences.

Finally, the Court limited its decision was limited to the Zuber and Comer cases, and left it to the Legislature to develop a more formal framework that would implement its holdings.  The Court also suggested that it would act further in this area if the Legislature failed to do so.

James S. Friedman LLC represents juveniles charged with offenses in the Juvenile Part of the Superior Court, Family Division, and in the Criminal Part of the Superior Court, Law Division.  If your son or daughter has been charged with delinquency or a criminal offense, contact us immediately to discuss your options and start planning you defense.





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