N.J. to release low-level inmates in county jails, hoping to hold off corrections outbreak

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Monday that the state will release many low-level offenders from the county jail system in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus within the corrections system.

The announcement follows an order late Sunday night signed by New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner.

Grewal, speaking at the state’s daily coronavirus briefing, said those released will have less than a year remaining on their sentence and had been sent to the county jail as a condition of probation or because of municipal court convictions.

Grewal made it clear that this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Among points in the order:

  • The county prosecutor or the Attorney General’s Office can offer an objection — and those will be heard by a special master;
  • Those who have been detained pretrial because the AG’s office or the county prosecutor considers them a danger to the public, a flight risk or a danger to themselves will not be released;
  • Those who are released must have a safe place to go and be able to continue to receive the services they are getting in the jail, including medical treatment.

Most of all, Grewal made it clear that these sentences are not being commuted, just delayed.

“To be clear, all these individuals will have to comply with the same stay-at-home orders and will have to complete their sentences when our public health emergency concludes,” he said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the state is the first to make this move — but acknowledged that it was a difficult choice, caused by the unique situation.

“We’re doing something because we’re in uncharted water,” he said.

Grewal agreed.

“I’m a career prosecutor and I take no pleasure in temporarily releasing or suspending county jail sentences, even for the lowest-level inmates,” he said. “But this is the most significant public health crisis we’ve faced in our state’s history and it’s forcing us to take actions that we wouldn’t consider during normal times.”

The timetable for release was unclear, but certainly sooner rather than later. Grewal said county prosecutors had until the end of the day Monday to file their list of objections.

“Prosecutors across the state are now trying to strike that difficult balance of public safety, public health (and) the rights of crime victims to see which we’re going to object to,” he said.

Grewal said this order will not slow the arrest of those considered dangerous. However, he pointed to a list of guidelines he released last week that gave greater discretion to local prosecutors.

“We issued guidance last Monday about exercising discretion,” he said. “This is not to say, if there’s an imminent public safety threat, to ignore it. We’re going to respond to those cases.

“But, if there are cases we can wait and charge later — the old check fraud case that’s been sitting around for a month, the old financial fraud case that hasn’t moved for months — if there’s not a reason, to move that right now.”

Grewal also said law enforcement has been encouraged to issue more complaint summons (which only bring a court date) as opposed to complaint warrants (which require entry into the jail system).

The order is based entirely out of concern for public health.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said there have been no cases of COVID-19 in state correctional facilities, but she said she did not have the data at the county level.

The spread of coronavirus obviously is the biggest fear, Grewal said.

“We know, and we’ve seen across the river, that jails can be incubators for disease, so we have to take bold and drastic steps,” he said. “So, when this pandemic concludes, I need to be able to look my daughters in their eyes to say that we took every step possible to help all the residents of this state, including those serving county jail sentences.”

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