Juveniles and Lengthy Prison Terms (Part 3)

by | Mar 8, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Chief Justice Rabner concluded with the following in relevant part: The Legislature is responsible for passing laws that fix the range of punishment for different crimes. The Judiciary, in turn, has long had the authority and responsibility to determine whether laws are constitutional. See Marbury v. Madison (1803). In the context of sentencing laws, courts apply longstanding principles relating to the Eighth Amendment and the State Constitution and exercise independent judgment to assess constitutional claims. See Graham, 560 U.S. at 61.

We have no choice but to apply those principles now in the face of an actual, live challenge. Despite good faith arguments to the contrary, we cannot elide a question because the Legislature may act in the future. The Legislature, as a matter of policy, still has the authority to select a shorter time frame for the look-back period.

The above approach does not threaten the juvenile waiver statute. In fact, it allows for the following scenario: a juvenile can be waived to adult court, prosecuted as an adult, and be sentenced for criminal homicide beyond the maximum term that would apply in the Family Part. Today’s ruling simply allows for a review and possible reduction of a sentence after a juvenile offender has served two decades in prison. That step does not put in place a system of indeterminate sentencing.

The Chief Justice concluded that both defendants are entitled to re-sentencing hearings. Justice Solomon filed an opinion dissenting in part. He was joined by the other two most pro-prosecution members of the Court; Justices Patterson and Fernandez-Vina.

The dissent found that the majority’s imposition of a 20-year look-back period is not permitted by the Constitution — which confers such authority upon the Legislature — and is not required to save the homicide statute from constitutional infirmity. New Jersey’s current sentencing scheme fulfils the constitutional mandate set forth in the cases on which the majority relies — that courts are required to treat juveniles differently and to consider certain factors before sentencing them to life without parole or its functional equivalent. Thus, it is not the Court’s prerogative to impose an additional restriction on juvenile sentencing. A 30- year parole bar for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of homicide conforms with contemporary standards of decency, is not grossly disproportionate as to homicide offenses, and does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve legitimate penological objectives.