The Garden State made news in March when it announced that it would furlough or switch to home confinement 1,000 prisoners to reduce the crowding in its prisons, which had about 18,500 inmates in custody. We made news again when it became clear that the state released fewer (the numbers vary depending on who is counting) than that target number of 1,000.
These were supposed to be low-risk prisoners eligible for home confinement under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order. The order was to target those with underlying health conditions, older inmates, or those nearing the end of their sentence. Despite nearly 3,000 inmates meeting at least one of the criteria for early release, and over 600 were initially approved for home confinement, much lower numbers of inmates were released at first, with a total of 700 by early June. The issue that many saw was that those not approved were not told why thus depriving them of due process in an expeditious fashion.
Prisons most dangerous in the country
Instead, officials now find themselves overseeing the highest rate of COVID-19-related deaths with a total of 45. The Department of Corrections updates its numbers regularly. Still, New Jersey prisoners die at a higher rate than any state — Michigan and Ohio have higher numbers to go with larger prison populations. Over 2,361 people in custody tested positive for COVID-19, which tops the country at a rate of 13% of the total inmate population. In addition, 777 staff members or about 10% have also tested positive. Three staffers have died.
Inmates can appeal a denial for early release
According to a June 5 ruling, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in a 46-page decision that prisoners can now appeal a denial of early release. Critics, however, complain that the state and the court have not gone far enough in protecting the inmates. Many also see this as an example of the need for prison system reform.
Few could have predicted the impact that the pandemic, but it is nonetheless another example of the dangers of incarceration. Those facing charges serve their best interests by doing everything in their power to not serve time, particularly in cases of non-violent crimes like DUI or drug charges. A knowledgeable criminal law attorney can often provide practical legal guidance that can reduce sentencing or find viable alternatives to time in prison.