NEWARK, N.J. — Opponents of sending juveniles to prison with no opportunity for parole are celebrating a recent victory in New Jersey.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a measure into law on July 21 that includes a provision banning life without parole for juvenile offenders.
Previously, juveniles in the state who were convicted of killing police officers or killing other juveniles during commission of a sex crime could be automatically sentenced to live out their lives behind bars. But that was unconstitutional under a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenders younger than 18.
In New Jersey, juveniles convicted of murder now face a minimum of 30 years up to a life sentence, but even those who receive the maximum would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years of their term.
“This bill says it’s going to be up to the judge to make a determination of the appropriate sentence,” said Alexander Shalom, of the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey, which advocated for the change. “It takes it out of the hands of the Legislature and puts it in the hands of the judge.”
More changes could be coming in New Jersey as lawmakers respond to rulings from the U.S. and state supreme courts.
A bill introduced in March would reduce the maximum period of parole ineligibility for juveniles who are sentenced as adults to 20 years. It also would allow them to petition for resentencing after 10 years. Lawmakers have yet to hold hearings on the bill.
The bill was introduced after a state Supreme Court ruling in January ordered resentencings for two men convicted of serious crimes they committed as juveniles.
Ricky Zuber was sentenced for his role in two gang rapes to 110 years in prison with 55 years of parole ineligibility. James Comer was convicted of participating in four armed robberies, one of which led to the killing of a victim by an accomplice. He was sentenced to 75 years with no parole eligibility for 68 years, three months.
The New Jersey justices wrote that juveniles should be considered differently than adults at sentencing, particularly if the length of parole ineligibility amounts to a de facto life-without-parole sentence, as in the Zuber and Comer cases. Comer would be 85 before he would be eligible for parole, and Zuber would be in his early 70s.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said its earlier ban on juvenile life without parole applied to those already serving such terms — triggering new sentencing hearings and, in some cases, parole for dozens of former teen offenders across the U.S.
The Supreme Court’s findings apply “with equal strength to a sentence that is the practical equivalent of life without parole,” the New Jersey court wrote, referring to the 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama.
New Jersey’s Department of Corrections doesn’t keep track of how many inmates are serving lengthy “de facto” life terms for crimes committed as juveniles, but Shalom said the number is “in the double digits.” Both Shalom and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said there are no inmates serving life without parole in New Jersey for crimes they committed as juveniles.
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