When the Predicate Convictions Involve a Juvenile
By Eric Marcy
The legacy of the war against crime of the 1990s has created a system of draconian sentencing enhancements that cruelly fail to take into consideration a person’s youth at the time of the commission of the crimes. Laws that remove sentencing discretion of judge and bars a court from considering a person’s youthful age at the time of the commission of the crimes is not only bad policy it is inhumane. New Jersey’s current version of the Three Strikes Law followed the Federal Three Strikes legislation that passed in 1995. New Jersey’s law permits the imposition of a life sentence without parole even when any of the predicate convictions occurred when the defendant was a juvenile.
Most recently the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the application of the Three Strikes Law when one of the predicate convictions involved a crime committed when the defendant was a juvenile. State v. Samuel Ryan (A-65-20) decided February 7, 2022. That decision may be found here. In applying the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1(a), otherwise known as the “Three Strikes Law,” to repeat violent offenders the court confirmed that crimes committed while a juvenile may serve as one of the “strikes” for imposing a life sentence. While the purpose of the three strikes is to remove and “incapacitate” dangerous repeat offenders, the application of three strikes law takes discretion away from judges and mechanically imposes draconian life sentences on youthful offenders without parole.
A mechanical application of such laws assumes that judges do not have the capacity to impose the appropriate sentence involving repeat offenders. The mechanical application of such laws also fails to recognize that juveniles who commit crimes are not fully developed mature individuals. It is recognized by mental health professionals, by some case law, and by common experience that juveniles are more likely to engage in risky and dangerous behavior. Juveniles do not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions before maturing and growing into adulthood.
The most recent example of the severe application of this Act involved a defendant, who as a juvenile who was convicted of two armed robberies within two days at the age of sixteen in 1989. He was treated as an adult in court and sentenced to ten years in prison with 40 months of parole ineligibility. In 1996 the defendant committed two additional armed robberies within three weeks, at the age of 23. One of the armed robberies resulted in shooting the victim in the jaw resulting in an attempted murder charge and ultimate conviction. All these convictions constitute violent offenses and admittedly warranted substantial sentences. In fact, before sentencing on the third predicate offense, the court already imposed a 60-year extended term under the Graves Act with 20 years of parole ineligibility on the second predicate conviction. After conviction on the third predicate offense, the State sought an extended term under the Three Strikes Law and the sentencing court imposed a mandatory life sentence without parole.
The question presented to the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether mandatory sentences, sentences that take discretion away from the court, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment when the predicate offenses involved a conviction when the defendant was a juvenile. The New Jersey Supreme Court just upheld the imposition of a life sentence without parole for a defendant whose first predicate act occurred at the age of 16.
The reality in application is that if a juvenile commits a string of violent criminal offenses when over 15 years old, even when it occurs within a brief period, under that mandatory nature of the Act, if the State seeks the implementation of the mandatory sentence, that juvenile will receive a mandatory life sentence without parole. The New Jersey Supreme Court just issued an opinion that the application of the Three Strikes Law, which include predicate crimes as a juvenile, to be constitutional and not cruel and unusual.
While society may rightly seek to permanently “incapacitate” repeat offenders, its application in the context of juveniles, ignores the reality of immature nature of the juvenile mind, and removes any discretion from the court. Sentencing provisions are already available to protect society without mechanically imposing life sentences without parole for acts committed as a juvenile. Courts should be trusted to impose appropriate sentences after being able to assess the age of the defendant and all the underlying circumstances relating to each of the convictions and the defendant’s individual circumstances.
Considering this recent opinion, the legislature should revisit the standards for the Three Strikes Law when the underlying convictions occurred when the defendant was a juvenile. The legislature could require that each predicate act necessary to impose a life sentence only involve convictions where the defendant was 18 or 21 years old at the time of the predicate crimes. Imposing life sentences without parole where the underlying crimes occurred were committed when an individual was 15, 16, or 17 fails to take into consideration the reality of the juvenile mind.
While, as a matter of law, the application of this Act may “conform to contemporary standards of decency” it does not mean that it is just or humane. There is also no question that society deserves protection from “dangerous persistent offenders.” While a majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court, with two dissents, has upheld the Three Strikes Law as currently written, the court noted that Legislature has the authority to reconsider its application when any or all the predicate acts occurred while the defendant was a juvenile.
The real question is that as a society, do we want a mechanical application of sentencing that does not permit a court to consider all factors relating to the underlying crimes and the individual circumstances of a defendant? Our sentencing provisions with mandatory minimums, extended terms, and the No Early Release Act, as they currently exist, are quite capable of “incapacitating” repeat violent offenders without mechanically imposing life sentences without parole involving crimes committed when an individual was a juvenile. While most of the court, with two dissents, have upheld the Three Strikes Law as currently written, the Legislature has the authority to reconsider its application when any or all the predicate acts occurred while the defendant was a juvenile. Justice Albin’s dissent, joined by Justice Pierre-Louis is worth a close reading.
In the decision upholding the constitutionality of the Act, the court recognized that requiring the first predicate Act to have occurred when the defendant is over 18 is within the purview of the Legislators:
- We note that those states that have chosen to limit application of their recidivist statutes to individuals who committed their first qualifying offense when over the age of eighteen have all done so through the legislative process. See, e.g., Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. 532.080(2), (3); N.M. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-23(C); N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-32-09(1)(c); Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-201(b)(ii).
Whether to amend our law in that way is for the New Jersey Legislature to determine. Are Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming more advanced than New Jersey in recognizing that recidivist statutes, especially statutes involving life sentences without parole, should require that the predicate Acts mandating life sentences all most occur when the defendant is over 18 years of age? Even New Mexico, when imposing a life sentence permits the possibility of parole under certain circumstances.
There is good reason to review the need for the Three Strikes Law in the first place when our current system of Mandatory Minimums, Mandatory and Extended Terms, and No Early Release Act (NERA) statutes are already the law of the land. Our state laws should not mechanically impose life sentences without parole when one or more of the predicate acts occurred when the defendant was a juvenile.
Given the recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion, at a minimum, it is time for the New Jersey State Legislature’s Judiciary, Law and Public Safety, and Legislative Oversight Committees to revisit and review how the Three Strikes Law applies to defendants whose predicate crimes occurred before the age of 18.