A number of inmates are set to be released this week from South Jersey jails after an order was signed by a state judge aimed at mitigating the risk of COVID-19 spreading through the facilities statewide.
It’s a calculated risk that officials and stakeholders are taking, they say, to balance protecting people serving out short terms for low-level offenses and those working in the facilities with protecting the community at large.
“It can be hurtful to hear we have to stay in our houses, but inmates get out of jail, but they’re not being told, ‘You get out of jail and you get to do whatever you want,’” said Nicole Wise, a family law and criminal defense attorney. “It’s about finding that balance, because constitutionally they shouldn’t have to suffer something beyond what they’ve been sentenced to.”
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In Cape May County, 18 of 152 inmates qualify, and the Prosecutor’s Office has objected to the release of nine. In Atlantic County, there are about 40 eligible inmates and the Prosecutor's Office has objected to 13.
Numbers for Cumberland County were not immediately available, but county officials late Tuesday released a statement expressing their opposition to the plan, adding no inmates have tested positive for the disease.
“Releasing some inmates, while keeping others incarcerated, does little to protect our corrections officers and staff. What it does do is release convicted inmates into our community based on, what amounts to be, the honor system,” Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella said in the statement.
The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment, while prosecutor’s offices in Atlantic and Cumberland counties deferred comment to the state Attorney General’s Office.
There have been no cases of the new coronavirus identified in Atlantic, Cape May or Cumberland county jails. So far, at least 38 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in New York’s Rikers Island complex and nearby jails.
Inmates who are serving county jail sentences of 364 days or less either as a condition of probation of for low-level offenses, including municipal court convictions, fall under the order signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner Sunday night, according to a statement from Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. It does not apply to those who are being detained pretrial because a judge found they present a danger to the community or a flight risk.
The order, which details the process for identifying qualified inmates as well as well as steps to monitor them upon release, creates a low risk for danger for residents, said J.C. Lore, a clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden.
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“These are people that are scheduled to be released somewhat soon,” Lore said. “So you’re talking about people that are going to be coming into the community pretty soon — people that are not the biggest threat to the community — and they’re going to have monitoring from the probation department.”
Each county’s prosecutor’s office can object to the release of any inmate but must file a written objection to which the Public Defender’s Office can then respond. The order does not commute a sentence but orders a temporary release due to the pandemic.
“Ultimately, if a large outbreak happens in a county jail, they’ll need health services outside the jail, so this protects the community at large,” Cape May County Deputy Public Defender Eric R. Shenkus said. “This truly is protecting not just the health of the inmate but the corrections officers, their family and the community in general.”
Jails don’t have the option to self-quarantine during a pandemic, Wise said, as people are still being arrested and corrections officers, administrators and other employees have to continue to report for work.
“Jails are incubators for disease. Once something gets into one of the jails, unfortunately, it will probably have an extreme impact because everyone is in extreme close quarters,” she said. “You can’t social distance in a county jail — you just can’t.”
Atlantic County Deputy Public Defender Scott D. Sherwood said his office has also been filing motions for reconsideration of detention for clients previously detained.
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“We have clients in jail who are nonviolent, have health issues, who have pending dates to be sentenced to probationary sentences and who have plea offers of probation,” he said. “We are requesting the release of those inmates on a case-by-case basis. If the state is seeking to place someone on probation, they do not belong in jail, especially at this time.”
During a Monday briefing with state officials detailing the spread of the disease, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called the order a “landmark process.”
“To be clear, all of these individuals will have to comply with the same stay-at-home orders that are in effect right now, and they will have to complete their sentences when our public health emergency concludes,” Grewal said. “The order also creates a process to ensure that inmates who are being released have a safe place to go, and that we connect inmates to the necessary help they need, whether it’s medical treatment or shelter or other housing services.”
While Tonia Ahern, who works in family advocacy and government policy for the state’s Mental Health Association, said it’s a good thing these inmates are getting out, she was left with a question: “As much as we say we’re going to connect them, how are we going to do that?”
Getting this population in touch with services can be hard on a regular day, let alone during a pandemic, she said, when most services will be via phone, which some don’t have.
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“Some of the people will have resources and won’t need housing, medical care or social or behavioral health services,” she said, adding she’s worried about those with substance abuse issues who may be more susceptible to an overdose. “At this point, my biggest fear is not that they’re a danger to the community, but that they’re a danger to themselves.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.