Juveniles and Lengthy Prison Terms (Part 2)

by | Mar 6, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: We ask trial courts to explain and make a thorough record of their findings to ensure fairness and facilitate review. See State v. Torres (2021) (requiring an “explanation for the overall fairness of a sentence”); State v. Fuentes (2014) (calling for “a qualitative analysis of the relevant sentencing factors on the record”). We look to a number of sources to fix the look-back period at 20 years. First, the Legislature chose 20 years as the maximum sentence for a juvenile adjudicated of committing a homicide. Second, the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission recommended that juveniles sentenced as adults to prison terms for 30 years or more should “be entitled to apply to the court for resentencing after serving 20 years.” N.J. Crim. Sent’g & Disposition Comm’n, Annual Report 29 (Nov. 2019). The Commission included representatives of the Governor and the Legislature, the Attorney General and the Public Defender, and the Parole Board and Department of Corrections, among others. The Commission’s recommendation was unanimous.

Although we do not rely on proposed legislation that has not been enacted, the parties point to a bill that would codify the Commission’s recommendation, which was pending at the time of oral argument. See A. 4372/S. 2591 (2020). As of now, the legislation has not been enacted into law.

We would have preferred to wait for the Legislature to act, but courts cannot decline to review a serious constitutional challenge on that basis. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 104 (1958) (noting that when a statute appears to conflict with the Constitution, “we have no choice but to enforce the paramount commands of the Constitution” and cannot “shirk” that task); see also Comm. to Recall Menendez v. Wells (2010).

A unanimous Commission recommendation does not mean that all parties to the Commission were in complete agreement with the ultimate recommendation. It more often means that after a lot of give and take, a “unanimous” agreement was reached.