Editorial: Age matters when sentencing juveniles

We’re glad to see the courts are affirming a longstanding belief that children and adults are not the same. The New Jersey Supreme Court last week overturned lengthy sentences for two juveniles, saying that sentencing teenagers to the “practical equivalent of life without parole” violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The court’s unanimous decision followed, but expanded, standards set forth in 2012 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling could reduce sentences of many offenders who committed crimes as juveniles and should prompt the Legislature to review guidelines for punishing youths.

In an opinion written by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the court referred to U.S. Supreme Court findings that, “as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies …  tend to confirm, [a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults.”

Rabner’s opinion continued that since the character of a juvenile is not as well-formed as that of an adult, personality traits are more transitory. That means that a 17-year-old should not be sentenced under the same standards as an older man or woman, the court said.

Both cases before the court involved individuals who committed very serious and violent crimes in Essex County when they were 17. Both were tried and convicted as adults.

One is serving a sentence of 110 years with no parole eligibility for 55 years after being convicted of participating in two gang rapes in 1981. He was described as the “ringleader.”  The other inmate is serving a 75-year term for armed robbery and for being an accomplice to felony murder and won’t be eligible for parole until he spends about 68 years in jail.

Both individuals committed heinous acts and deserve lengthy prison terms.

But as the court made clear, sentencing can’t take place in a vacuum. Age matters.

What’s most important is not so much the length of a sentence, but the actual time a defendant can expect to spend in prison.

The court put it this way: “A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only. This reality cannot be ignored.”

The opinion said both men deserve to be resentenced under guidelines that consider the age at which they committed their crimes.

Those guidelines include such things as the defendants’ immaturity, peer pressure, family environment and “possibility of rehabilitation,” according to the court.

Moreover, the court said it was the Legislature’s responsibility to review the law and to find a way to give juvenile defendants some meaningful opportunity to eventually be released from prison based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” That may not be easy, but lawmakers have an obligation to try.

The U.S. Supreme Court set a clear message in 2005 when it outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. Last week’s ruling simply reinforced the principle that, as the court said, “children are different.”

Original article