NJ Juvenile Life Sentences Decision Now Goes to Legislature

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The fairness of our criminal justice system has come under the microscope in recent years.

A New Jersey Supreme Court decision to halt life sentences for juvenile offenders will now go to the state legislature. 

The ACLU of New Jersey case was brought on behalf of around 60 inmates who were convicted as teens and are serving a defacto life sentence — 70, 80 or even 100 years. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that life sentences for juveniles violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, defacto life sentences have remained in New Jersey.

Alexander Shalom, a senior attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey, says there's been little interest among New Jersey elected leaders to change the sentencing laws. But this week's court decision changes that.

"If the legislature doesn't act or if the legislature acts in such a way that it doesn't do enough, then the courts will have to remain involved in ordering re-sentencing for affected offenders," Shalom said. 

The ACLU is also calling for lawyers to be provided to inmates who received life sentences as juveniles, so they can obtain a reduced sentence. The pool of inmates who are serving defacto life sentences is overwhelmingly black and Latino, according to Shalom. 

A WNYC investigation in 2016 found that juveniles who are tried as adults serve longer sentences, face harsher punishment and are disproportionately black and Latino.