An early order from the court that covered county jails resulted in 700 inmates being released and helped control the spread.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order in April that set up a process for nonviolent state inmates fitting certain criteria to be considered for release. The appeal does not question what the governor did so much as how his order is being carried out.
2,500 inmates got on the list, but only 600 were approved and little more than half of them have gotten out. Many of the rest were given little, if any explanation explaining why their bids were rejected.
Meanwhile, 43 state inmates have died, according to public defender Joseph Krakora.
“This executive order has failed to protect the vulnerable and the staff in the prisons,” Krakora told the justices in a virtual hearing online to adhere to social distancing guidelines. “It’s made it impossible for the prisons to protect those people who remain in after inmates are released. And it has enhanced the risk to the community as a whole because the staff that work there go home to their families and their communities every night after work.”
The state countered there’s a higher risk to the public in setting state inmates free and those rejected have other avenues to appeal the decision.
“Neither the Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board or the Juvenile Justice Commission is turning a blind eye to the serious nature of the issues raised by COVID,” said Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Cohen. “Appropriate steps are being taken.”
Among those steps is testing of all inmates in the state system. So far about 60% of the 18,000 inmates have been tested. Staffers are also being checked, but it’s unclear how many of them have gotten tests.
Plaintiffs want the high court to allow a process that could allow nonviolent inmates and juvenile offenders with less than a year left on their terms to either be released or have their sentences terminated.