On certification to Superior Court, Law Division, Resentencing Panel, whose opinion is reported at N.J. Super. (1980).
For reversal -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Schreiber and Handler. For affirmance -- none. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Wilentz, C.J. Schreiber, J., joins in all but Part II of opinion.
We are asked to decide whether the Legislature, in passing the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1 et seq. (Code), intended that persons serving mandatory life sentences for first degree murder under former law should be automatically entitled to reconsideration and possible reduction of their sentences. The answer is no. Necessarily involved in this decision is whether the Legislature intended to reduce the maximum sentence for murder to a term of 30 years imprisonment and to authorize a life sentence only in cases where the State proves at a separate hearing that the murderer is either a persistent offender, a professional criminal, or a killer for hire (hereinafter "enhancement criteria"). Again the answer is no. We hold that no one now serving a mandatory life sentence for murder under former law is entitled to reconsideration of that sentence under the resentencing provisions of the Code, and that the crime of murder under the Code carries a potential life sentence without the necessity of proving an enhancement criterion.
The Code provides that a person serving a custodial sentence under pre-Code law may petition to have that sentence reconsidered if the offense has been eliminated by the Code or if the person was "sentenced to a maximum term which exceeds the maximum established by the code for such an offense." N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1(d)(2). Here involved is a petition for sentence review filed by respondent Maguire who was convicted in 1975 of first degree (felony) murder and received what was then the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.*fn1 Respondent advances two arguments to support the claim that his life sentence exceeds the maximum sentence established by the Code for the crime of murder. He argues first that without further proof of at least one of the sentence enhancement criteria in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3, the maximum sentence for murder is the 30-year term provided in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b). Respondent also contends that even if the penalty of life imprisonment is now a discretionary
sentencing option for murder under the Code, his mandatory life sentence should be deemed to "exceed" a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Pursuant to our order of October 18, 1979, respondent's petition was heard by the special resentencing panel which is composed of three judges of the Superior Court.*fn2 By a divided vote, the resentencing panel determined that respondent was eligible for a sentence reconsideration hearing under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1(d)(2). Both the majority and the dissent rejected the claim that persons convicted of murder cannot receive an extended term of life imprisonment under the Code without separate proof of the enhancement criteria in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3. The majority focused, however, on the Legislature's abandonment of the mandatory life sentence and emphasized that the imposition of a life sentence for murder now requires a structured exercise of judicial discretion. With those considerations in mind, the majority concluded that for the limited purpose of establishing eligibility for sentence review, the maximum sentence for murder under the Code should be construed to mean the 30-year maximum term set out in the murder provision itself, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b), rather than the maximum extended term of life imprisonment under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7(a)(1). The dissenting judge reasoned that in the context of the resentencing section the word "maximum" was intended to mean greatest or longest duration and concluded that the former mandatory life sentence did not exceed the maximum extended term of life imprisonment under the Code, notwithstanding the discretionary nature of the new maximum.
On December 19, 1979, the three-judge panel granted a stay of its decision pending the State's motion for leave to appeal. Because of the large number of defendants having a stake in the
outcome of this litigation*fn3 and the public importance of the issues involved, we granted direct certification and permitted the New Jersey Association on Correction ("NJAC") to participate as amicus curiae.
In order the delineate the nature and proper scope of our inquiry, we note at the outset what is not involved in this case. No claim is made here that the former offense of first degree murder has been eliminated by the Code so as to entitle respondent to resentencing under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1(d)(2); nor do we think such a claim is tenable.*fn4 Moreover, neither respondent nor NJAC claims that the State is constitutionally required to extend the benefits of a subsequently enacted sentencing scheme to all persons serving valid sentences imposed under former law.*fn5 Rather, we must determine whether persons serving life sentences for murder under former law are eligible for resentencing under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1(d)(2) either because the [84 NJ Page 514] Code reduces the maximum punishment for the crime of murder to a 30-year term of imprisonment or because a mandatory life sentence exceeds a discretionary life sentence. In resolving these questions of statutory construction, we are mindful that our task is to effectuate the legislative intent in light of the language used and the objects sought to be achieved.*fn6
The sentence reconsideration provision involved in this case first appeared in the original draft of Senate No. 738 (1978), the bill which eventually became the Code. The proposed section entitled every person serving a custodial sentence under prior law to be resentenced in accordance with the Code. The provision envisioned a comprehensive attempt to minimize sentence disparity between persons convicted under former law and persons convicted of the same offense after the effective date of the Code. However, this comprehensive scheme was not enacted. Instead the Legislature passed a compromise measure which limited eligibility to two classes of prisoners and provided that the decision to impose a new sentence would be discretionary rather than mandatory. See Senate Bill No. 738 (1978) (as amended) at 1-2.
As finally enacted, the provision reads as follows:
Any person who is under sentence of imprisonment on the effective date of the code for an offense committed prior to the effective date which has been eliminated by the code or who has been sentenced to a maximum term of imprisonment for an offense committed prior to the effective date which exceeds the maximum established by the code for such an offense and who, on said effective date, has not had his sentence suspended or been paroled or discharged, may move to have his sentence reviewed by the sentencing court and the court may impose a new sentence, for good cause shown as though the person had been convicted under the code, except that no period of detention or supervision shall be increased as a result of such resentencing. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1(d)(2)].
While an applicant's existing maximum sentence is a matter of record, the proper reach of the clause-"which exceeds the maximum established by the code for such an offense"-is clouded by the lack of definition of the crucial term "maximum."
The Code classifies all offenses into four grades of crimes and two levels of disorderly persons offenses. N.J.S.A. 2C:1-4; 2C:43-1. For crimes of the fourth degree, disorderly persons offenses and petty disorderly persons offenses, the maximum
custodial sentences are 18 months, 6 months and 30 days, respectively. For crimes of the first through third degrees, however, the Code provides generally for two types of custodial sentences. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6 establishes separate sentence ranges*fn7 for each grade of crime which are designated "ordinary terms" of imprisonment. In addition to these ordinary term sentence ranges, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7 establishes "extended term" ranges for "the cases designated in section 2C:44-3 or 2C:11-3." The latter Code section concerns the crime of murder. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3 in turn provides that upon application of the prosecuting attorney, the sentencing court may impose an extended term of imprisonment for crimes of the first, second or third degree if the court finds one or more of the grounds specified in that section.
For the purpose of determining eligibility for sentence review, the question is whether an applicant's present maximum is to be measured against the maximum ordinary term or the maximum extended term. For the reasons stated below, we conclude that in every case (with the possible exception noted in note 10 infra) where the imposition of an extended term is subject to the requirements of section 2C:44-3, eligibility for resentencing must be determined by comparing the applicant's present maximum with the maximum ordinary term for the correlative crime under the Code. If the Code maximum is less, the applicant is entitled to a resentencing hearing under section 2C:1-1(d)(2).
Under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3, a defendant convicted of a crime of the first, second or third degree may be sentenced to an extended term only if the sentencing court expressly finds that the defendant is a persistent offender, that he is a professional criminal or that he committed the crime for pay, as those terms [84 NJ Page 517] are defined in the statute.*fn8 The central focus of these enhancement criteria is on offender-related characteristics. By contrast, the pertinent eligibility requirement in 2C:1-1(d)(2) focuses on the maximum sentence established by the Code "for such an offense." As in all cases of statutory construction, our task is to interpret the words of the statute in light of the purposes the Legislature sought to further. State v. Madden, 61 N.J. 377, 389 (1972); Red Bank Regional Ed. Ass'n v. Red Bank Reg. High School Bd. of Ed., 78 N.J. 122, 131-32 (1978). While the Legislature substantially restricted the scope of its initial plan to afford all prisoners the opportunity to be resentenced pursuant to the Code, the statute plainly evidences an intent to relieve some of the frustration felt by prisoners whose sentences under former law exceed the maximum sentence that may be imposed under the Code for a like offense. Thus, if the focus of section 2C:1-1(d)(2) on the offense itself is given practical effect, an applicant's existing maximum must be compared with the maximum
permitted under the Code for an offender who, like the applicant, has not been shown to meet the extended term requirements.*fn9
Consideration of two other factors lends further support to our construction of the statutory language. First, the findings required for an extended term under section 2C:44-3 must be made at a post-conviction hearing in which the State has the burden of proof and the defendant has the right to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-6(e). However, in cases where a defendant was sentenced under former law for an offense now classified as a crime of the first, second or third degree, none of the required findings has been made, nor has the defendant had an opportunity to contest the existence of the specified grounds.*fn10 In the absence of an opportunity to contest the facts necessary to trigger the extended terms for the grades of crime subject to 2C:44-3, the maximum sentence under the Code must be read to refer only to the maximum ordinary term provided under 2C:43-6 or, as in the case of kidnapping, by the statute defining the crime, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(c) (kidnapping is a crime of the first degree but upon
conviction a defendant may be sentenced "to an ordinary term of imprisonment between 15 and 30 years" without regard to the presumptive sentence).*fn11 Second, if the extended term maximums were used to determine eligibility for resentencing, the resentencing provision would lose all force and effect for the maximum extended terms under the Code almost invariably exceed the maximums prescribed by former law.
We now consider whether the foregoing analysis leads to the same result in the case of an applicant serving a life sentence for murder. Respondent acknowledges that the Code provides a maximum extended term of life imprisonment for murder under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7(a)(1) but points to the 30-year maximum sentence for murder authorized by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b). He takes the position that because the Code classified murder as a crime of the first degree and because extended terms for crimes of the first degree are governed expressly and without exception by the terms of N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3, it follows that a person convicted of murder under the Code cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment unless at least one of the enhancement criteria in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3 is established at a post-conviction hearing conducted in accordance with the procedural safeguards in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-6(e). In the absence of such findings, the ...