TRENTON -- In what legal experts are calling an important decision, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the way New Jersey judges sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead.
The state's highest court ruled 7-0 that judges must consider a number of factors -- including age, family environment, and peer pressure -- before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases.
Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, said this is "one of the most significant sentencing decisions" the court has made in "many years."
And in a rare move, the court also urged the New Jersey Legislature to revise the state's current law on juvenile sentencing to "avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future," according to the decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
The decision is the result of appeals filed by a pair of men who were convicted separately of violent crimes years ago in Essex County when they were 17 and were sentenced to decades in prison.
Ricky Zuber was convicted for his role in two gang rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. He would not have been eligible for parole for 55 years -- a time when he would be 72.
James Comer was convicted of four armed robberies in 2000, including one where an accomplice shot and killed a victim. He would have become eligible for parole when he was 85 -- after having served 68 years.
Rabner wrote that judges in both cases did not take "age or related circumstances" into account when issuing the sentences.
But, Rabner said, the U.S. Supreme Court has since "sent a clear message" that "children are different" from adults and that "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered when sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole.
"Because of their young age at the time of their crimes, both defendants can expect to spend more than a half century in jail before they may be released -- longer than the time served by some adults convicted of first-degree murder," Rabner wrote.
Rabner cited how in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges presiding over cases involving juveniles facing life sentences without parole must consider a number of factors before sentencing. Those include immaturity; family and home environment; family and peer pressures; an"inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or their own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation."
But New Jersey's Supreme Court went further, saying those standards must be applied not only to sentences of life without parole but also to youths who face lengthy sentences.
The court also cited a the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects defendants from "cruel and unusual punishment."
"Youth matters under the constitution," Rabner wrote.
Zuber and Comer must now be re-sentenced under the new standards.
Verniero said the ruling is significant for a few reasons.
"In addition to the substance of it, the decision is notable because it was written by the chief justice, which usually signals that the underlying issue is of particular importance, and it was unanimous," said Verniero, who is now an attorney with Newark law firm Sills Cummis & Gross.
Plus, he added, "it is not every day that the court asks the Legislature to consider adopting a new statute."
"In essence, the court is affording the Legislature the opportunity to act rather than have the court impose a system-wide mandate," Verniero said. "The court is deferring at this juncture to lawmakers, while retaining the authority to act itself in some future case if the constitution so requires.
Alexander Shalom, a senior staff attorney with the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who represented one of the defendants, praised the ruling.
"This decision is a watershed moment for the rights of juveniles nationally and an important step in ending mass incarceration in New Jersey," Shalom said. "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."