The Three Strikes Law and Juvenile Offenses (Part 5)

by | Apr 9, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Justice Solomon and the 5-2 majority concluded with the following in relevant part: Finally, we reject the ACDL’s argument that constitutional principles of fundamental fairness preclude juvenile convictions from being counted as predicate offenses under the Three Strikes Law. The fundamental fairness doctrine “serves to protect citizens generally against unjust and arbitrary governmental action” where there is otherwise “no explicit statutory or constitutional protection to be invoked.” State v. Njango (2021) (quoting Doe v. Poritz, (1995)). We apply the doctrine “sparingly and only where the interests involved are especially compelling.” We do not find the Legislature’s policy decision to count qualifying juvenile-age crimes as strikes to be fundamentally unfair because, as already explained, the enhanced life-without-parole sentence is imposed only upon commission of a third, violent first-degree crime as an adult.

We therefore hold that the Three Strikes Law and the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed upon defendant under that statute do not violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. We further hold that Miller and Zuber have no application to adult defendants sentenced under the Three Strikes Law. Accordingly, we affirm defendant’s sentence.

Justice Albin filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Pierre-Louis, my law school classmate, joined. The dissent opined in relevant part: The use of Ryan’s juvenile conviction as a predicate offense for the purpose of imposing a mandatory life sentence under the Three Strikes Law violates the cruel and unusual punishment provisions of the Federal and State Constitutions. The majority’s decision in this case cannot be squared with the consolidated opinion in State v. Comer and State v. Zarate, in which the Court stressed that because “children are different from adults,” the lengthy mandatory sentences imposed against Comer and Zarate for their juvenile murder convictions were cruel and unusual under the State Constitution.

Whereas Comer and Zarate are now eligible for release after serving twenty years, Ryan — sentenced to a life term at age twenty-three — must serve forty-seven years before he will be eligible for release, based on his juvenile conviction. In Justice Albin’s view, giving Ryan’s juvenile conviction the same constitutional weight as his adult convictions is at odds with the evolving standards of decency addressed in federal and state constitutional caselaw.

The constitutionality of extended term sentences often boils down to an argument over which offense is being punished. Proponents stress that the recent adult offense is the only offense that is being punished. Critics note that the underlying juvenile offenses are also being punished retroactively.