State v. Zuber and Comer, Nos. 076806, 077318, — A.3d —, 2017 WL 105004 (N.J. Jan. 11, 2017) – Juvenile defendants were convicted of multiple crimes (non-homicide crimes for Zuber, and homicide and non-homicide crimes for Comer) and sentenced to aggregate term-of-years sentences of 110 years (with parole eligibility after 55 years, at age 72) and 75 years (with parole eligibility after 68 years, at age 85), respectively. When the sentences were originally imposed, before Graham and its progeny, the trial judges did not consider defendants’ age or the mitigating qualities of youth. In these consolidated collateral appeals, defendants argued that their lengthy sentences violated federal and state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment because they were de facto life sentences – depriving them of any meaningful opportunity to obtain release – and were imposed without consideration of youth and its attendant characteristics as required under Graham and Miller.
Rejecting the state’s contention that Graham and Miller apply only to sentences of life without parole imposed for single offenses, the Supreme Court of New Jersey determined that “Miller’s command that a sentencing judge take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” applied to all sentences “that are the practical equivalent of life without parole.” It explained that “[t]he proper focus belongs on the amount of real time a juvenile will spend in jail and not on the formal label attached to his sentence,” and emphasized that Graham and Miller apply to consecutive, aggregate sentences on multiple counts of conviction, like defendants’. Therefore, the court directed that “judges must evaluate the Miller factors when they sentence a juvenile to a lengthy period of parole ineligibility in a case that involves multiple offense at different times – when judges decide whether to run counts consecutively, and when they determine the length of the aggregate sentence.” (When sentencing juveniles, the court explained, the individualized assessment under Miller must be done in addition to the state law Yarbough test for determining whether to impose consecutive sentences.)
Here, although the term-of-years sentences imposed were not officially “life without parole,” they were nonetheless sufficiently lengthy to trigger Miller’s protections under the federal and state constitutions. The court noted, too, that “because of how young they were at the time of their offenses, both defendants will likely serve more jail time than an adult sentenced to actual life without parole.” Finally, it stated that judges should not resort to general life-expectancy tables, which rest on informed estimates and the use of factors like race, gender, and income, when determining the appropriate overall length of a sentence imposed on a juvenile offender.
The court noted that even when a sentencing court considers the Miller factors at sentencing, some juveniles would nonetheless receive lengthy sentences with substantial periods of parole ineligibility. It recognized that such a situation could raise serious constitutional issues under Graham’s dictate that a court should not determine at the outset that a juvenile would never be fit to reenter society. The court thus called on the legislature “to consider enacting a statute that would provide for later review of juvenile sentences that have lengthy periods of parole ineligibility,” – that is, providing a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” — as has been done in many states. Accordingly, to satisfy the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Paragraph 12 of the New Jersey Constitution, the court ordered that defendants be resentenced and that the Miller factors be considered at resentencing. At resentencing, the sentencing judge should “view defendant as he stands before the court at resentencing and consider any rehabilitative efforts since his original sentence.” Remanded for resentencing.