N.J. Supreme Court calls for temporary release of certain inmates after COVID-19 impacts jails

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The New Jersey Supreme Court approved an agreement on Sunday night allowing the release of up to 1,000 people in county jails, which Gov. Phil Murphy (D) called “a prudent measure” necessary to “ensure public safety.”

Photo via hudsoncountynnj.org.

By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View

The order, signed by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, does not commute people’s sentences, but orders their temporary release, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues spread at a staggering rate.

The order was the work of an agreement among the state Attorney General’s Office, the County Prosecutor’s Association, the Public Defender’s Office, and the ACLU-NJ.

“Every New Jerseyan should be proud of this agreement,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said in a statement.

“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.”

Beginning Tuesday morning, any inmate currently serving a county jail sentence either as a condition of probation or as a result of a municipal court conviction shall be ordered released, according to the order.

Then, “no later than noon on Thursday,” the order reads, detainees serving sentences that are “not tethered to a probationary sentence for a fourth-degree crime, disorderly persons offense, or petty disorderly persons offense in Superior Court.”

County Prosecutor’s and the Attorney General will file any written objections to the release of an inmate by 5 p.m.

At a press conference this afternoon providing statewide updates on COVID-19, Murphy praised the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

“This is a prudent measure and all efforts have been made to ensure public safety … I don’t know that any other American state has done this.”

But the order falls short for some — specifically detainees under the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Hundreds of detainees in Hudson, Essex and Bergen County jails are not eligible for release under the Supreme Court’s order; that falls under the authority of ICE.

“ICE and local officials must respond immediately to this urgent humanitarian crisis taking place in New Jersey jails, and jails and detention centers across the country, by releasing all ICE detainees,” said Rachel Levenson, an attorney for Make the Road NJ whose client, Yimy Benitez Lopez, is being detained in the Hudson County Correctional Center.

More than 120 ICE detainees at the Hudson County center have been conducting a hunger strike to demand their temporary release.

“We don’t know when someone will be infected, and it will spread very quickly when it’s here,” Lopez, who has been in custody since November, said.

“We are scared because we have our families and friends outside and they could contract it and we wouldn’t be with them. This situation is very difficult with the pandemic here and across the world. We want to be with our families and friends during this time of panic and fear.”

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The medical community at-large has been sounding the alarm that a COVID-19 outbreak at a detention facility could be catastrophic.

The New Jersey/New York metropolitan region now has the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Chief News Correspondent John Heinis contributed to this report. 

Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_

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