On January 19, 2022, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Atlantic County case of State v. William Thomas. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-7 was whether the juvenile serving a life sentence was entitled to a sentencing review hearing after 40 years of good behavior.
Judge Geiger wrote for the Court in relevant part: We now hold that defendant, who was sentenced to life in prison without a specified period of parole ineligibility and has been incarcerated for over forty years for crimes committed when a juvenile, has a blemish-free disciplinary record, has received numerous positive psychological evaluations, and has completed rehabilitative programs while incarcerated, is entitled to the same type of hearing adopted in Comer–an adversarial hearing in the Criminal Part to provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” achieved while imprisoned, including consideration of whether defendant “still fails to appreciate risks and consequences,” his “behavior in prison since the time of the offense,” and “other relevant evidence.” After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court will have discretion to affirm or reduce the original base sentence within the statutory range,” and, in turn, determine whether defendant should be released based on the time he has served.
Defendant’s constitutional rights in that regard are not satisfied by periodic parole hearings, which do not consider the Miller factors, and do not provide a constitutionally sufficient procedure and forum to adjudicate the important Federal and State constitutional issues presented. Parole hearings fall far short of the procedure contemplated in Graham, Comer, Zuber, and Tormasi.
Emblematic of the shortcomings of the parole hearings defendant has endured is the Board’s unsustainable 2013 final decision, which included the following conclusions that were not supported by the record: Here, the Board singularly focused upon the admittedly horrific details of Thomas’s crimes, and his “insufficient problem resolution” in the form of a contrived memory lapse, as evidence of likely recidivism.
In abolishing the juvenile death penalty in America, many families and friends of victims took comfort in knowing that a life without parole sentence ensured that the offenders would be incapacitated. The line of cases allowing for juvenile sentence reductions will be received by some family and friends as a betrayal.