NJ Supreme Court Reviews Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Spencer Asch, Writer

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In what has been called one of the state’s most important recent legal decisions, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled on January 11, 2017 that sentencing standards for teens and other minors be reviewed by the legislature to “avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future,” according to one of the justices authoring the decision.

The case centered around two individuals who were both 17 at the time of their offenses. Ricky Zuber, the first of the two defendants, was charged with two gang-rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. His earliest opportunity for parole would be in 55 years from the time of his offense, at which time he would be 72 years old. James Comer, the other defendant, was convicted of four armed robberies, during one of which an accomplice shot and killed the victim. He was deemed ineligible for parole until the age of 82 (65 years into his sentence) at the time that his sentence was issued.

The Court agreed unanimously to review the case, citing Alabama v. Miller, an earlier case that allowed the justices and other legal practitioners to consider external factors such as age, peer pressure, and home environment before setting a lengthy sentence.

Beyond the significant future impact of this landmark decision is the important fact that Hunterdon Central’s AP Government and Politics classes got to hear arguments for the case in November on their field trip to the Supreme Court at the Hughes Justice Center in Trenton. As part of their “Courts, Civil Liberties, and Civil Rights” unit, the goal of the field trip was to connect what students learn in class with actual real-world situations.

“It was really interesting,” senior Kevin Leach, who is interested in studying politics after high school, said of the experience. “To actually get to see the justices try to process the facts of the case and rule based on the [New Jersey] Constitution was something I’ve never seen before. I didn’t realize how much they grill the people arguing both sides.”

In response to the ruling that the justices handed down, Leach agreed that there are certain factors that should be considered in juvenile cases. “I’m one of the first people to admit that [juveniles] don’t know everything yet. Studies show our minds don’t develop until 25 years, so there is an argument to be made for reducing sentencing [for juveniles] under the current court system. However, the other side made very good points about the potential loopholes this can create, so I can see both sides.”

Having ruled this way, the Supreme Court now must resentence the two juveniles who originally appealed the decision.

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NJ Supreme Court Reviews Juvenile Sentencing Laws