ACLU-NJ Calls on New Jersey to Stop Sentencing Adolescents to Die in Prison

June 16, 2014

Motion challenges de facto life sentence without possibility of parole for man convicted as teenager

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ today called for the state of New Jersey to end the practice of giving what amounts to life sentences (PDF) without the possibility of parole to children who have committed crimes. The filing asked the court to reduce the sentence for James Comer, who at age 17 was sentenced to serve 75 years in prison. Because Comer will be 86, well past the average lifespan for a person in his situation, when he will be eligible for his first parole hearing, he effectively has been sentenced to die in prison.

“It’s unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison, but for untold numbers of people, this sentence is still a daily reality,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, of Gibbons P.C., who is representing Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “Certainly, not everyone who is sentenced to a prison sentence as a teenager should be released, but that’s not what we’re asking for. We’re asking that New Jersey recognize that every person sentenced for a crime committed as a child deserves a chance to show that he or she has changed and ultimately deserve to be released.”

As a result of recent United States Supreme Court decisions, courts throughout the country, including in New Jersey, can no longer sentence minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, James Comer was effectively sentenced to life in prison. Given the average American male lifespan of 77, and the even shorter lifespan of men serving time in prison, he most likely will not live to see his first parole hearing, which is scheduled to take place more than two decades past his actuarially determined life expectancy.

Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, received his sentence in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, the person who was charged with the murder and the other who was an adult at the time. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have dictated that courts cannot give juveniles the harshest jail sentences, and indeed, they mandate states give people convicted of crimes as minors a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” even if they never ultimately leave incarceration.

The ACLU-NJ’s motion applies three U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued over the last 10 years that, combined, transformed the legal system’s treatment of young people. Together, those three cases established that the biological and psychological differences between childhood and adulthood entitle young people to treatment in sentencing that takes into account their unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. According to dozens of studies, the vast majority of adolescents who commit antisocial acts grow out of those inclinations; only five to ten percent of troubled adolescents become chronic offenders as adults. Further, it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will develop into relatively stable adults.

“Courts have finally recognized what parents have known for years: adolescents are fundamentally different than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “As such, the Constitution demands that they be treated differently. Whether New Jersey calls it life without parole or 75 years, the result is the same: children are being condemned to die in prison. The Constitution and common sense both demand an end to this cruel and unusual punishment.”

The motion, captioned State of New Jersey v. James Comer, was filed June 12, 2014, in Essex County Superior Court. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

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