Juveniles and Lengthy Prison Terms (Part 1)

by | Mar 4, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On January 10, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Essex and Morris County cases of State v. James Comer and State v. James C. Zarate. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-7 concerned the circumstances under which juveniles serving lengthy prison terms could petition the Court to review their sentences.

Chief Justice Rabner wrote for the 4-3 majority in relevant part:  This appeal raises challenging questions about the constitutional limits that apply to sentences for juvenile offenders. Juvenile offenders sentenced under the statute may petition for a review of their sentence after having spent 20 years in jail. At the hearing on the petition, judges are to consider the Miller factors — including factors that could not be fully considered decades earlier, like whether the defendant still fails to appreciate risks and consequences, and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated.

A defendant’s behavior in prison since the time of the offense would shed light on those questions. Other factors, like the circumstances of the homicide offense, would likely remain unchanged. Both parties may also present additional evidence relevant to sentencing. In particular, the trial court should consider evidence of any rehabilitative efforts since the time a defendant was last sentenced.

As the Supreme Court acknowledged in Roper, “an unacceptable likelihood exists that the” brutal nature of an offense can “overpower mitigating arguments based on youth.” 543 U.S. at 573; see also Graham, 560 U.S. at 78. Courts must therefore consider the totality of the evidence. After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court would have discretion to affirm or reduce a defendant’s original base sentence within the statutory range, and to reduce the parole bar below the statutory limit to no less than 20 years.

There is a distinction between “jail” and “prison” although the terms are often used interchangeably. Jail refers to the County facility where inmates await trial or serve sentences of less than one year. Prison is where convicts go to serve sentences of more than a year. Prisons tend to be a more dangerous places for inmates. Jails tend to afford inmates with less time for recreation or any other activities that occur outside of the jail cells.