NJ Supreme Court: Gov.'s COVID-19 prison release program denies inmates' rights
Gov. Phil Murphy's administration was ordered to stop keeping inmates and their attorneys in the dark over which inmates can be released
By S.P. Sullivan
NJ Advance Media Group
TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s highest court on Friday ordered Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to stop keeping prisoners and their attorneys in the dark over which inmates can be released under an executive order aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus in the state’s prisons.
Murphy, a Democrat, ordered in April that his Department of Corrections and the state Parole Board move quickly to determine which prisoners could be released, weighing the seriousness of their offense and the amount of time they have left on their sentence against the interests of public safety.
In an unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court found the Democratic governor’s May executive order lacked basic “due process” protections.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which represented corrections officials in the dispute, declined to comment.
The Supreme Court ruling, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, stopped short of requests from the state Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to take over the process of releasing prisoners amid the pandemic, finding the evidence “does not demonstrate that the agency has neglected to implement” Murphy’s order.
The court also found they lacked they authority to step in and monitor New Jersey’s problems in its prisons, which are run by the executive branch.
They did, however, direct administration officials “to act as expeditiously as possible.”
So far, 607 inmates out of a pool of more than 3,000 had been approved for home confinement or parole and about 400 of them had actually been released, either under Department of Corrections furloughs or reconsideration of their parole, according to data provided by the attorney general.
Prisoner advocates said the rollout of Murphy’s order has been painfully slow and contributed to New Jersey having the highest per-capita prison death rate tied to the coronavirus in the nation.
“We think this is an all-hands-on-deck situation where all branches of government need to take action to make sure people survive,” said Alexander Shalom, a senior attorney for the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU.
The high court ordered Murphy’s administration to overhaul how it is handling requests from prisoners to be released amid the pandemic, finding the state had not done enough to ensure their rights were protected.
Attorneys for the state argued that prisoners potentially eligible for release were not owed “due process” protections because whether to release them was an “administrative” decision.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
Under the new rules, state officials must:
- Explain, in every case, why an inmate is being denied release. Currently inmates are notified only that their petition was denied, without any explanation or ability to appeal.
- Provide to public defenders a secret list of inmates who may be eligible for release under Murphy’s order. Previously, defense attorneys were in the dark as to who, exactly, could request release.
- Allow inmates to provide a statement explaining why they deserve a furlough. Previously, state authorities allowed prosecutors and victims to argue against their release but did not allow inmates to speak for themselves.
The justices also ordered lower courts to hear challenges to decisions from Murphy’s administration denying the release of individual inmates.
Joseph Krakora, the state’s top public defender, said in an interview Friday that the ruling “recognized the lack of due process in the governor’s executive order.”
“We have so many lawyers who have been trying to advocate for the inmates and they really have very little in the toolbox,” he said.
New Jersey’s prisons have been marred by an uneven response to the pandemic. An NJ Advance Media investigation in May found New Jersey’s prison system was ill-prepared to deal with the coronavirus crisis, taking weeks to implement basic prevention methods like giving inmates masks and hand sanitizer.
Now state lawmakers are investigating the response at prisons, as well as nursing homes and other facilities housing vulnerable people across the state.
“We urge that the entire process — review for approval and release — be carried out carefully and expeditiously because the stakes are so high,” Rabner wrote in the decision.
©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.