United States Supreme Court case law that developed over the last few years has made it unconstitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentence of a minor must include a “meaningful opportunity for release” although it does not have to guarantee that the minor will be released after serving a certain amount of time. Some states get around this court made law by handing down prison terms that make it likely that the young offender will die in prison before their first parole hearing. New Jersey is one of these states.
In New Jersey, it is still a reality that a minor who is accused of a serious offense will face a lengthy prison sentence effectively condemning them to life in prison. An example of this practice is that of James Comer who was convicted and sentenced to 75 years when he was 17. He is now 31 years old and has served 14 years for four robberies and felony murder. Comer did not kill anyone himself but was subject to the felony murder rule which provides that anyone involved in the felony that ultimately results in a death can be charged with murder. Comer actually received more time than the accomplice that committed the murder and his adult accomplice. This in itself violates court made law that minors involved in a crime should not receive the harshest sentence. The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted a motion asking for a reduction of Comer’s sentence.
It is not very difficult to understand why minors should be treated differently than adults when it comes to sentencing for serious crimes. It is pretty clear that children are very different from adults, biologically and psychologically. Due to these differences, children can be reformed more easily than adults. Only approximately 5-10% of children involved in crimes grow up to be chronic offenders as adults and it is impossible to determine which of them it will be. The ACLU has used these statistics as part of its basis in asking NJ to give up its practice of handing down life sentences for minors.
If you or someone you know is a minor who is facing accusations of a serious crime, call Sitzler & Sitzler at (609)267-1101.