NJ Justices OK Release Of Jail Inmates Amid COVID-19 Crisis

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (March 23, 2020, 8:00 PM EDT) -- Hundreds of county jail inmates in New Jersey could be released under what advocates called a landmark agreement reached between prosecutors and defense lawyers and approved by the state Supreme Court to tackle the risks posed by the novel coronavirus, authorities said Monday.

The court on Sunday night issued an order that will suspend or commute the jail sentences for certain low-risk inmates because of the COVID-19 pandemic, following a mediation between the state Attorney General's Office, the County Prosecutors Association, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

The order applies to individuals in jail for third- or fourth-degree crimes or disorderly persons offenses and does not impact state prison sentences, according to a statement Monday from state judiciary officials. The ACLU-NJ on Monday said the order could lead to the release of up to 1,000 inmates.

"You think of the helplessness that we all sort of feel in this age of coronavirus and social distancing and all the things we're being told to do. I can only imagine the helplessness of being in prison, or jail rather, and just sitting there, waiting for it to eventually come to you," Jennifer Sellitti, spokeswoman for the public defender's office, told Law360 on Monday.

The deal happened because "the courts, the prosecutors, the attorney general and the defense community and the ACLU all came together and said, 'There's a problem. Let's see if we can come to agreement on the terms of the solution and, if we have to fight about some individual cases along the way, then so be it. That's what courts are for,'" Sellitti said.

The public defender's office had requested such action, leading the state Supreme Court to order the parties to engage in mediation, court documents state.

Under the agreement, any inmate serving a county jail sentence as a condition of probation for an indictable offense or due to a municipal court conviction shall be released by 6 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Supreme Court order.

Other county jail inmates must be released by noon Thursday, including those serving a resentencing after being found to have violated probation as well as individuals serving a sentence "not tethered to a probationary sentence for a fourth-degree crime, disorderly persons offense, or petty disorderly persons offense in Superior Court," the order states.

The agreement also includes a process for the attorney general and county prosecutors to object to the release of inmates, with judges or special masters issuing decisions in such cases. According to the order, "Release shall be presumed, unless the presumption is overcome by a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the release of the inmate would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public."

At the end of the public health crisis, the released inmates will go before the court to determine whether their jail sentences should be reinstated or commuted, judiciary officials said.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said Monday in a statement, "This is the most significant public health emergency in our state's history and it's forcing us to take actions we would never consider during normal times. As a career prosecutor, I take no pleasure in temporarily suspending county jail sentences, even for the lower-level inmates contemplated by today's consent order."

"But when this pandemic ends, I need to be able to look my daughters in the eyes and say that I did everything I could to protect the lives of New Jersey's residents, including those currently incarcerated," Grewal added. "I thank our 21 county prosecutors, the public defender, and other criminal justice stakeholders for working so quickly during this extraordinary moment, and for partnering with us as we strike a difficult balance between public safety, public health, and the rights of crime victims."

ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha on Monday called the deal a "truly a landmark agreement, and one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis."

"It shows the strength of New Jersey — that when a crisis hits, we can work together to weather through with justice and humanity," Sinha said in a statement. "We also hope that the principles guiding this agreement — compassion, dignity, looking out for all people's well-being — will play a larger role in criminal justice once this crisis abates."

--Editing by Jack Karp.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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