TRENTON – A joint resolution sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Nellie Pou that establishes a commission to review life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders was passed out of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee today.
“We need to be careful that we do not completely write off young people who have committed serious crimes as incapable of ever being rehabilitated,” said Senator Pou (D-Passaic/Bergen). “We have to be sure that constructive life sentences for juvenile offenders are truly appropriate when handed down by the courts. This resolution would establish a commission to study later review of juvenile sentences with lengthy periods of parole ineligibility, and to consider whether defendants should be entitled to appointed counsel at that hearing.”
The joint resolution, SJR-18, would establish the “Commission to Review Constructive Sentences of Life Imprisonment on Juvenile Offenders.” The commission would examine issues concerning sentencing and parole of juvenile offenders who are tried as adults for serious, violent crime which may result in a constructive life term of imprisonment without a reasonable opportunity for parole.
The Commission would be required to:
- evaluate the impact of recent United States and New Jersey Supreme Court rulings on juvenile offenders who are sentenced to constructive life terms of imprisonment without a reasonable opportunity for parole and should consider whether State criminal sentencing laws should be revised to take into account certain sentencing factors set forth in these cases;
- assess whether the age of majority in New Jersey is the appropriate age threshold under which the court would determine if the “mitigating qualities of youth” and these sentencing factors should be considered at sentencing or whether another approach is more appropriate;
- identify and evaluate possible methods for providing persons currently serving constructive terms of imprisonment for crimes committed as a juvenile a reasonable opportunity for release when appropriate, such as resentencing by the court or establishing statutory limits on parole ineligibility with retroactive applicability;
- determine whether these juvenile defendants should have the right to legal counsel at court or parole hearings;
- consider the impact that juvenile resentencing or parole alternatives may have on the victims to ensure that any recommended reform satisfies the constitutional mandate to treat crime victims with fairness, compassion and respect.
The commission would consist of 15 members: two from the Senate, two from the Assembly, six ex-officio members (including the Administrative Director of the Courts, the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Corrections, the Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission, the Public Defender and the Chairman of the State Parole Board), and five public members appointed by the Governor (including a retired Superior Court judge, a county prosecutor, a victims’ rights advocate, a representative of a civil rights or social justice organization, and a State law school faculty member with expertise in juvenile justice issues). Members of the commission would serve without compensation.
The commission would report within six months of its organizational meeting and expire upon submission of that report.
In the 2016-2017 session, the Attorney General’s Office and the Administrative Office of the Courts supported the joint resolution.
The joint resolution passed out of committee by a vote of 4-0 and moves to the full Senate for consideration.