The New Jersey Supreme Court Monday ruled that juvenile offenders with lengthy sentences may petition for a review of their sentence after 20 years in prison.
The court considered the cases of James Comer and James Zarate. Comer was sentenced to 75 years in prison at age 17 for his involvement in four armed robberies which left one person dead. Zarate was sentenced to life in prison at age 14 years for participating in a 2005 murder with his older brother.
In 2017, the same court requested that the New Jersey legislature address the issue of juvenile offenders sentenced to lengthy stays in prison under N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(b)(1) who cannot have their sentences reviewed. The legislature has yet to amend the law, which requires a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole for juveniles and adults convicted under certain homicide statutes.
Justice Radner, writing for the majority, said the court’s mission is to “impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.” The new ruling recognizes juvenile offenders’ capacity for reform.
The court will therefore allow juveniles convicted under the law to have their sentence reviewed. At a review hearing, judges will consider factors enumerated in Miller v. Alabama: the juvenile’s age and immaturity, the juveniles family home environment, the circumstances of the offense, peer pressure and legal naivete. The reviewing court can then affirm or reduce the sentence or “reduce the parole bar to no less than 20 years.”
The court reversed and remanded Comer and Zarate’s cases for resentencing. Justice Radner emphasized that the court’s ruling does not indicate its opinion on Comer and Zarate’s resentencing and maintained that some juveniles “should serve lengthy periods of incarceration.”