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Sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas.
Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP.

Criminal Justice

Fighting for Fairer Sentences for Young People

Over the past 15 years, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that youth matters in criminal sentencing. Social science and scientific research have conclusively demonstrated that children are developmentally and neurologically different from adults in ways that make them categorically less culpable. Young people have also demonstrated a greater capacity for reform.

Despite this recognition, New Jersey still treated young offenders the same as adults by subjecting them to 30-year mandatory minimum sentences without the possibility of parole for homicide offenses. Along with co-counsel, the Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, the firm submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court of New Jersey in support of two incarcerated youth who challenged the constitutionality of their respective sentences of 30 and 42 years of imprisonment without parole. Amici included the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, New Jersey Parents’ Caucus, Transformative Justice Initiative, The Beyond the Blindfold of Justice Project, and 10 formerly and currently incarcerated young offenders.

The brief argued that a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence did not take into account the factors at play when the defendant is a minor at the time an offense is committed. Such a lengthy parole bar deprives young people who commit serious crimes of a meaningful opportunity to seek release once they can demonstrate their maturation and rehabilitation, which for many occur long before 30 years.

The brief presented numerous stories of young people who became productive and law-abiding members of their communities after serving prison time for homicide offenses (for those outside New Jersey, the term is often far less than 30 years). These individuals are currently social workers, business owners, paralegals, law students, community organizers, teachers, youth mentors, and justice advocates. Their stories demonstrate the distinct rehabilitative potential of young people and the arbitrariness of a 30-year mandatory minimum as applied to them.

The brief also highlighted the racial disparities that infect criminal sentencing. According to a recent report by The Sentencing Project, New Jersey ranks as the worst state in the nation with respect to racial disparities in its prison population. Black residents are incarcerated at 12.5 times the rate of whites; although Black people make up 13 percent of New Jersey’s population, they make up more than 60 percent of the state’s total prison population. The report also shows that the state has the 10th-highest Latinx-to-white racial disparity in the nation. Sentencing patterns are even more racially skewed for young offenders, resulting in overwhelmingly Black and Brown youth spending most of their adult lives behind bars without being afforded a chance to demonstrate that they have matured into peaceful and productive adults.

We urged the Court to create an opportunity for resentencing or release for offenders who were minors at the time of their offense but were sentenced as adults to lengthy prison terms. And it did. The Court ruled that the state’s mandatory 30-year parole bar is unconstitutional because “it does not conform to contemporary standards of decency.” The Court found that “in many cases, [30 years] may be grossly disproportionate to the underlying offense” and that traditional penological justifications are not served by applying a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence to juveniles. To redress these constitutional violations, the Court held that people sentenced to long prison terms as juveniles are entitled to petition for release after serving 20 years. New Jersey thus joins more than a dozen other states that have instituted a lookback period for young offenders, a reform that is supported by society’s current understanding of a young person’s brain development and the decreasing incidence of recidivism as a person matures.

The Court ruled that the state’s mandatory 30-year parole bar is unconstitutional because “it does not conform to contemporary standards of decency.”

Fighting for Fairer Sentences for Young People
Photo courtesy of Sincere Capers,
Students participate in an audio-recording session through a program for at-risk youth set up by a client who was formerly incarcerated.