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NJ Order to Release People in County Jails Breaks New Ground in COVID-19 Pandemic

March 23, 2020

NJ Supreme Court approves agreement among Attorney General’s Office, NJ County Prosecutor’s Association, Public Defender’s Office, and ACLU-NJ, which could release up to 1,000 in county jails beginning Tuesday, March 24, amid COVID-19 crisis

Late in the evening Sunday, March 22, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order that had been negotiated by criminal justice stakeholders, including the ACLU-NJ. All people serving sentences in county jails across the state are subject to the order, although prosecutors can challenge the release of specific individuals where they contend there exist significant risks to the person being released or to public safety. The order could impact up to 1,000 people incarcerated in county jails.

The order (PDF) does not commute people’s sentences, but instead orders their temporary release during the COVID-19 public health crisis. At the conclusion of the emergency, judges will determine whether any sentences should be commuted. The Order takes extraordinary steps to prevent unnecessary incarceration or superfluous interactions with the criminal justice system altogether during this time, such as suspending most outstanding warrants and preventing in-person reporting to probation officers.

The order coincides with heroic efforts from the Office of the Public Defender to secure the release of many of their clients from pretrial detention in county jails. The efforts of public defenders have been met with success in many counties due to the defenders’ tireless work, as well as prosecutors’ understanding of the practical benefits of reducing jail populations by reconsidering requests for pretrial detention in this unprecedented time.

The following can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha:

“New Jersey has shown resiliency and a willingness to solve problems together, and every New Jerseyan should be proud of this agreement. Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated.

“This is 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. 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.

“The heroic efforts of employees of the Office of the Public Defender, both in their emergency representation of clients in the middle of a crisis and for their advocacy for people in jails generally through this order, truly embodies the spirit of why the Sixth Amendment provides a right to an attorney.”

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