Kids Cannot Routinely Receive De Facto Life Sentences, NJ Supreme Court Rules

Decision marks a historic major step forward for criminal justice rights of juveniles and movement to end mass incarceration in NJ

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
January 11, 2017 4:15 pm

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The New Jersey Supreme Court today ruled (PDF) in two juvenile justice cases that children convicted of crimes cannot be sentenced to de facto life sentences without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes. ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, along with Gibbons P.C. Criminal Defense Chair and Pro Bono Director Larry Lustberg and Gibbons Fellow Avram Frey, represented James Comer. Comer, currently in his 30s, will now have an opportunity to argue for his resentencing. Previously he was only eligible for a parole hearing at age 86, at the end of his natural life span.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who represented Comer:

“We are thrilled that the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized that routinely condemning children to die in prison is unconstitutional, no matter what we call it. Children are different from adults and our criminal justice system needs to fully take those differences into account.

“This decision is a watershed moment for the rights of juveniles nationally and an important step in ending mass incarceration in New Jersey. These two men who were sentenced as teenagers will now be able to go before a judge and argue for their release before they’ve become old men. This decision is the latest development in a nationwide movement recognizing that in the justice system, children are different from adults, and that movement is only gaining more momentum.

“The opinion affirms the fact that a life sentence by another name is still a life sentence. The Court has taken an important first step by ordering resentencing hearings for these clients. But there is more work to be done and we will be calling on the Legislature to take action to ensure that no juvenile in New Jersey is unconstitutionally sentenced.”

The brief (PDF) and opinion (PDF) can be read online.

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Youth are still developing, so as a result society treats kids and adults differently in several contexts, such as driving and serving in the military. Yet in the criminal justice system, we treat youth as adults.