Juvenile Life Sentences

by | Feb 21, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Juvenile Delinquency, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Juvenile Delinquency

On January 13, 2021, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Somerset County case of State v. Walter Tormasi. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44 concerned the constitutionality of a juvenile’s life sentence with 30 years of parole ineligibility.

Judge Geiger wrote for the Court in relevant part: Defendant asks this court to extend the protections adopted in Zuber and Miller to all “lengthy sentences” imposed on a juvenile offender that are subject to a thirty-year parole-bar. We decline to do so. In State v. Bass, we addressed the type of sentence that may qualify as a de facto life term. We held that an aggregate term of life with a thirty-five-year parole-bar was not the functional equivalent of a life sentence, and thus, the defendant was not entitled to resentencing under Zuber, even though the sentencing court had not considered the Miller factors when it imposed the sentence. We further held that any rehabilitative actions the defendant had undertaken while incarcerated were matters for the parole board to consider and did not render the sentence unconstitutional.

We explained: Defendant’s sentence is not illegal because he now claims to be rehabilitated as a result of his incarceration. We do not minimize defendant’s efforts to rehabilitate himself. However, consideration of these accomplishments is exclusively the province of the parole board and not a means of collateral attack on defendant’s sentence–which has been affirmed on direct appeal.

As we have noted, defendant will be eligible for parole in mid-2026, when he will be forty-seven years old. Defendant’s mandatory thirty-year parole-bar is five years shorter than the parole bar in Bass and decades shorter than those in Zuber. A life sentence subject to a thirty-year parole-bar is far from a de facto life sentence without parole when imposed on a juvenile offender, who will be eligible for release by age forty-seven. Defendant’s sentence does not amount to the functional equivalent of life without parole. Accordingly, resentencing is not required by Zuber.

We do not decide here in the abstract what would constitute an appropriate amount of time in prison to justify a “return to court” to demonstrate that defendant has sufficiently reformed himself to a degree that serving his original sentence in full is no longer constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. That said, we discern no reason to depart from our decision in Bass.

The fact that all of the litigants and judges involved with this appeal were likely older than 47 was no help to the defendant. It undermines the suggestion that a release from prison at age 47 is the functional equivalent of a “life sentence.”