By Briana Vannozzi
Despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning life sentences for youth, some juvenile offenders are spending half a century or more for crimes committed as minors. In a unanimous ruling by New Jersey’s Supreme Court this week, justices recognized the loopholes circumventing the system in an effort to close them.
“We were thrilled. We were thrilled that the supreme court recognized that an unconstitutional sentence is unconstitutional. Whether you call it life without parole or whether you call it 75 years. If you’re condemning children to die in prison you need to pay special attention to the things that make children different than adults,” said ACLU NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alex Shalom.
The court ruling means New Jersey judges will have to consider factors like age, immaturity, family environment and peer pressure before giving a lengthy sentence to juveniles convicted of violent crimes. Shalom represented the case for two Essex County men, Ricky Zuber and James Comer, appealing separate convictions from their teenage years.
“His sentence, he received a 75-year sentence of which he would have to do more than 68 years before eligible for parole. Chances are he would be dead before that happened. This is for his role in a series of robberies in one case where the person was killed,” Shalom said. “But James Comer was not alleged to be the trigger man. The state never even suggested he was the trigger man, yet he was effectively condemned to die in prison.”
“It’s probably one of the most significant sentencing decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court in many, many years,” said former State Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero.
Verniero cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Miller v. Alabama — as the driving force in this ruling. But Verniero says they took it a step further by asking the state legislature to revamp its own law.
“You have the court saying in a unanimous voice with all seven members of the court, saying to the legislature ‘we would like you to weigh in on this issue, consider passing a statute.’ And they’re deferring to the legislature, while at the same time reserving the right to act in some future case if the constitution so requires,” Verniero said.
“A 2011 report that studied waiver of young people to the adult system across New Jersey found gross racial, ethnic and geographic disparities with regard to who is waived up to the adult system,” said Laura Cohen, criminal and youth justice clinic director at Rutgers Law School.
Cohen says there are enormous disparities regarding which children are charged in the first place and that tugs at the heart of the problem.
“We have to be thinking about rehabilitation. We have to be thinking about the future. We have to be thinking about achieving young peoples’ potential and allowing them to go on and lead law abiding, useful lives when they leave the prison system,” she said.
Moving forward the ACLU says it will work with the New Jersey legislature to craft a solution for the state law. Both men represented in the case will be re-sentenced under the new guidelines.