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The Supreme Court has ruled that judges must exercise a heightened level of care before sentencing juveniles to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life imprisonment.
Ruling in State v. Zuber, the court said sentencing judges must follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 directive in Miller v. Alabama, which held that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.
Consideration of a list of factors from Miller is needed in such cases to satisfy the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the court said.
The Supreme Court ordered resentencing of two defendants: Ricky Zuber, who was sentenced to 110 years in prison with 55 years of parole ineligibility for his role in two gang rapes at age 17 in 1981; and James Comer, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison with 68 years of parole ineligibility for his role in four armed robberies when he was 17 years old in 2000. In one of the robberies, an accomplice shot and killed a victim.
Zuber would not be eligible for parole until he is 72 years old, while Comer is eligible for parole when he is 85, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court. When their sentences were imposed, trial judges gave no consideration to their age, but in the past decade the U.S. Supreme Court has sent a clear message in that regard: children are different when it comes to sentencing, youth and its attendant characteristics must be considered when a juvenile is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, Rabner said. At sentencing, the Supreme Court has directed judges to consider immaturity, failure to appreciate risks and consequences, family and home environment, peer pressure, an inability to deal with police officers, prosecutors or the defendant’s own attorney, and the possibility of rehabilitation, according to Rabner.
The same concerns apply to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life without parole, such as the ones in the Zuber and Comer cases, Rabner said.
“The proper focus belongs on the amount of real time a juvenile will spend in jail and not on the formal label attached to his sentence,” Rabner wrote.
In Miller, the Supreme Court did not foreclose life without parole for juveniles convicted of a homicide offense, but called for consideration of five factors: a juvenile’s immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; the family and home environment surrounding the juvenile, from which he usually cannot extricate himself; the circumstances of the offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way family and peer pressures may have affected him; whether he might have received a lesser charge but for his inability to deal with police officers, prosecutors and his defense attorneys; and whether the circumstances suggest rehabilitation is warranted.
Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, was co-counsel for Comer along with Lawrence Lustberg and Avram Frey of Gibbons in Newark. Shalom also argued for the amicus curiae ACLU of New Jersey. He said the court had taken “an incredibly important first step” but it was “up to the legislature to move us across the finish line” by codifying the ruling in a statute. Shalom said that although the Miller decision focused on juveniles sentenced to life without parole, the New Jersey court accepted the argument that “a rose by any other name is still a rose, and an unconstitutional sentence by any other name is still unconstitutional.”
Lustberg, who represented Comer, said in an email that the tradition was “important and path-breaking” but “in many ways it continues in the great tradition of the New Jersey Supreme Court which has always safeguarded the rights of criminal defendants and of juveniles in particular.”
Of particular importance, Lustberg said, is the ruling’s holding that “all juvenile defendants who receive lengthy sentences, including lengthy sentences with periods of parole eligibility, must receive a ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” The court deferred to the Legislature on establishment of a mechanism for putting the ruling in place, but if it fails to do so, defendants would have to return to court to seek relief, he said.
Zuber’s lawyer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender James Smith Jr., did not return a call. The state was represented by Special Deputy Attorney General and acting Assistant Prosecutor Frank DuCoat. A spokesman for the attorney general, Peter Aseltine, declined to comment on the ruling.