On February 7, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Cumberland County case of State v. Samuel Ryan. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1 was whether application of the “Three Strikes Law” was unconstitutional when one of the predicate offenses was committed as a juvenile.
Justice Solomon wrote for a 5-2 majority of the Court in relevant part: Defendant asserts that the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment bar application of the Three Strikes Law to any individual who committed at least one of the predicate offenses as a juvenile. Nevertheless, application of the three-factor test for cruel and unusual punishment utilized in Miller and Zuber to the Three Strikes Law leads us to the same conclusion today as it did over twenty years ago in Oliver. The Three Strikes Law and its application to defendant are both constitutionally permissible.
First, a survey of other jurisdictions demonstrates that the Three Strikes Law continues to conform to contemporary standards of decency. Federal Courts of Appeals have overwhelmingly held that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit counting juvenile offenses as strikes. See, e.g., United States v. Hunter, 735 F.3d 172, 174-76 (4th Cir. 2013); United States v. Graham, 622 F.3d 445, 461-64 (6th Cir. 2010); United States v. Salahuddin, 509 F.3d 858, 863-64 (7th Cir. 2007); United States v. Scott, 610 F.3d 1009, 1018 (8th Cir. 2010); United States v. Edwards, 734 F.3d 850, 851, 853 (9th Cir. 2013); United States v. Orona, 724 F.3d 1297, 1307-08 (10th Cir. 2013); United States v. Hoffman, 710 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2013).
And most states with similar three-strikes legislation count juvenile-age convictions as strikes where the defendant was waived up to adult court. See, e.g., Wilson v. State, 521 S.W.3d 123, 128 (Ark. 2017); Vickers v. State, 117 A.3d 516, 519-20 (Del. 2015); State v. Standard, 569 S.E.2d 325, 326, 328-29 (S.C. 2002); State v. Teas, 447 P.3d 606, 619-20 (Wash. Ct. App. 2019), review denied, 460 P.3d 182 (Wash. 2020); Commonwealth v. Lawson, 90 A.3d 1, 6-8 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2014). Cf. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-120(e)(3) (providing that juvenile-age convictions in adult court count as predicate offenses so long as the conviction resulted in a custodial sentence).
Tennessee’s Code demonstrates the importance of protecting defendants from the future consequences of their present conviction. Whether or not a juvenile serves one day in jail as opposed to no days determines whether a predicate offense can be a basis for a future life without parole sentence.