The prohibition against the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment is a Constitutional protection afforded by both the U.S. Constitution (Eighth Amendment) and the New Jersey State Constitution. The right derives from the notion that justice demands that punishment for a crime should be graduated and proportional to the offender and the criminal offense itself. A hallmark of our civilized society, the prohibition was the subject of one of our Supreme Court’s first decisions of 2017. In New Jersey v. Zuber, the Court tackled the issue of the appropriate sentence for juveniles who commit violent crimes.
The Court’s decision resolved two cases that were consolidated because of the similarity of issues at stake. The lead defendant, Zuber, had been sentenced at age 17 to more than 100 years in prison for his role in two violent crimes. With the chance of parole, he was eligible for release in 2036, when he would be about 72 years old. Zuber’s counsel had argued that his client’s sentence was excessively harsh, amounting to life without parole, and was therefore unconstitutional.
A starting point for our Supreme Court’s decision was the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida and the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. Those cases focused on the specific characteristics of youths and their relevance in the sentencing process. The Graham case held that the Eighth Amendment forbids sentences of life without parole for juveniles who have been convicted of crimes other than homicide. The Miller Court articulated five factors that must be considered by sentencing courts where lengthy prison terms are contemplated. Those are: the features of youth (such as the failure to appreciate risks and consequences); the family and home environment; the extent of the youth’s participation in the crime and the influence of familial and peer pressure; the youth’s naiveté in interactions with police officers or prosecutors, including the inability to assist in his own defense; and the possibility of rehabilitation. Along with those factors, sentencing courts typically consider the traditional goals of punishment, such as deterrence, society’s desire for retribution, incapacitation of the offender, and the potential for rehabilitation.
Against this backdrop, the NJ Supreme Court determined that the juvenile defendants deserved to be re-sentenced. Since their crimes carried lengthy sentences (which amounted to life without parole even though the sentences were not designated as such), the sentencing court should have taken into account the Miller factors before sentencing the youths to a term that was effectively life in prison. It held that the Eighth Amendment demanded that an individualized assessment of the juvenile should have been undertaken before a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was handed down.
The Supreme Court went one step further, suggesting that the New Jersey Legislature work on drafting legislation that would incorporate a mechanism for moving up an offender’s release dates based on considerations such as demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. The invitation to lawmakers was an unusual but proactive step designed to reduce potential future constitutional challenges to juveniles sentenced to lengthy terms.