Advocates for juvenile justice reform are celebrating a recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in which the justices found that young people sentenced to long prison terms can petition for release after 20 years.
The court found that a state law that bars people sentenced to many decades in prison from asking for release violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment when applied to those who were juveniles at the time they committed the act that landed them in prison.
In making that decision, the court took note of a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have gradually taken into account scientific findings about the nature of the developing immature brain. Specifically, scientific experts have come to a consensus that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. Before that age, youth and young adults are prone to impulsive action, including homicide, without understanding the consequences.
“The law recognizes what we all know from life experience — that children are different from adults,” wrote Chief Justice Stuart Jeff Rabner. “Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate long-term consequences of their actions.”
Moreover, experts in juvenile brain development contend that young people who are given appropriate support and treatment can turn their lives around and may no longer need to be behind bars once their brains mature. Courts have increasingly accepted these findings in their decisions.
The New Jersey decision involved a case in which one robbery participant was 17 years old at the time. He was sentenced to a total of 75 years in prison with no possibility of release for more than 68 years.