N.J. Supreme Court Urges Leniency in Sentencing Youths

What factors must be considered before sentencing a juvenile defendant?

A recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion could reduce the number of juveniles sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for violent crimes. In the case of State v. Zuber, defendant Zuber was sentenced to 110 years in prison with parole ineligibility for 55 years for his part in two gang rapes that happened when he was 17.  Zuber will be 72 years old before he is eligible for parole.  In sentencing Zuber, the trial court failed to consider the defendant’s youth when it issued the equivalent of a life sentence.  The N.J. Supreme Court took up the case to clarify the legal principles surrounding the sentencing of juveniles.

Applying the Miller v. Alabama Factors

In its opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court stressed the need for sentencing judges to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama.  In that case, the nation’s high court held that the Eighth Amendment prevents use of a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles.  Miller set out a list of factors that sentencing judges must consider to satisfy the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The five factors a judge should consider before imposing a lengthy juvenile sentence are:

  1. A juvenile’s immaturity and failure to appreciate the risks and consequences;
  2. The juvenile’s family and home environment;
  3. The circumstances surrounding the offense, including the extent of the juvenile’s participation and impact of family or peer pressures;
  4. Whether the juvenile would have received a lesser charge if not for his or her inability to deal with police officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel; and
  5. Whether the circumstances suggest rehabilitation will occur.

In reviewing Zuber’s case, the N.J. Supreme Court remanded for resentencing with the Miller factors in mind.  This important case could have significant implications for juvenile offenders across the state, leading to more lenient sentences aimed at eventual rehabilitation.  Juveniles and the parents of children facing criminal charges should contact our South Jersey juvenile law attorneys for assistance with their case.