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Up to 1,000 people could be eligible for release. Other jurisdictions around the U.S. are also taking steps to curb their jail populations.
New Jersey plans to release inmates from county jails as the state seeks to reduce the danger that the coronavirus will spread among people who are locked up in the facilities.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that the state was the first in the nation to take such a step. People eligible for release include those serving sentences of a year or less, either as a condition of probation, or for municipal court convictions or for other lower-level crimes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the move could affect up to 1,000 incarcerated people.
“We're doing something because we're in uncharted water,” Murphy said at a press conference on Monday.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the outbreak was forcing the state “to take actions that we wouldn't consider during normal times,” adding that “jails can be incubators for disease so we have to take bold and drastic steps.”
"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.
Authorities in other states have also taken actions that are meant to prevent the spread of the virus in jails, which are seen as a potential hotbed for the transmission of the coronavirus.
In Washington state, a Supreme Court order last week called on judges to release more inmates, such as those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the disease.
Officials in New York City, which has become an epicenter for the virus outbreak, are now reporting dozens of cases of the illness among city jail inmates and staff.
New Jersey’s release program will be carried out under a State Supreme Court order signed on Sunday after an agreement on the issue was reached between the state attorney general, office of the public defender, county prosecutors association and the ACLU.
Each of these parties agreed that reducing state county jail populations was in the public interest when it came to guarding against the risks that the coronavirus poses.
Prosecutors can challenge the release of specific people on the grounds that they are a risk to public safety or to themselves. An initial deadline for filing objections was set for Monday evening. The order sets up a process for considering these cases.
The release order goes into effect for some inmates on Tuesday morning, and for others on Thursday.
Released inmates will have to comply with any stay-at-home orders that the state has in effect and they’ll have to complete their sentences when the public health crisis is over, Grewal said.
He added that there will be safeguards in place to ensure that people who are released have a safe place to go, and that they have access to the services they need, like medical treatment.
“This is truly a landmark agreement, and one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis,” said Amol Sinha, ACLU New Jersey’s executive director.
Part of the order specifies that if an inmate has tested positive for Covid-19, the disease that the coronavirus causes, or if they are presumed to have the illness, then the jail holding that person should not release them without further guidance from other authorities.
In New York City, the Board of Correction said in a March 21 letter to city criminal justice officials that over the six days prior it had learned that at least 12 department staff, five health service employees and 21 people in custody had tested positive for the virus.
The letter, signed by Jacqueline Sherman, the board’s interim chair, described the disease as creating a “crisis” in the city’s jail system. It urges that people at high risk of dying from the disease be removed from jail, and that the jail population be rapidly decreased.
“Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff,” the letter says. “Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ healthcare system as well its basic operations.”
People over 50, or with underlying health conditions and those detained for administrative reasons, such as parole violations, or who are serving “city sentences” of one year or less for lower-level offenses, are among those the letter identifies as candidates for release.
Jurisdictions in California, including Los Angeles and San Diego, have taken measures to reduce their jail populations. This has involved both releasing some inmates early and booking fewer new people into jails.
Prosecutors have played a key role in several places in calling on police to issue more citations, instead of arresting people, and asking judges to reconsider bail requirements.
In Hamilton County, Ohio, home to Cincinnati, the sheriff said last week that the local jail system had acted to release misdemeanor inmates and non-violent offenders unable to make bond.
Emergency court proceedings in Tulsa County, Oklahoma last week led to the release of at least 67 jail inmates, the Tulsa World reported.
Jails in King County, Washington, where Seattle is located, have stopped accepting people arrested for violating the terms of their state Department of Corrections community supervision. County corrections officials also say they've asked law enforcement to prioritize jail bookings for people who pose the most immediate public safety risks.
On Monday, there were 1,638 adults in custody there, down from 1,940 on March 1, according to the county. The county says it already has a low incarceration rate, which limits how many people can be released without raising safety concerns.
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Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.