6,200 prison inmates released early is only tip of the problematic iceberg in New Jersey
Under the Murphy administration, there have now been approximately 6,200 prison inmates released early, including 852 more than a week ago over the last two years in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey Monitor.
The releasing of prisoners and inmates from correctional and state facilities began in 2020 during the height of the pandemic with the Murphy administration fearing the spread of Covid.
The shortened sentences fell under what's called "public health emergency credits," which comes from legislation Governor Murphy signed in October of 2020.
New Jersey State Senators Nellie Pou and Sandra B. Cunningham, and State Assemblymembers Raj Mukherji, Shavonda E. Sumter, and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson were the primary sponsors of the legislation.
It has sparked extensive dialogue, especially of late as hundreds of additional inmates have had prison time cut short, and some have gone on to commit new crimes with their newfound freedom including committing car thefts and murder.
To discuss the ongoing release of prisoners and its effect on community safety, root causes, and how to prevent any additional exodus from prisons, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden, Monmouth County State Senator Declan O'Scanlon (R-13), and Cape May County State Senator Michael Testa (R-1) joined me for a virtual roundtable discussion.
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What are the public safety challenges and consequences that this legislation has created in New Jersey communities?
Senator Testa, who is also a Criminal Defense Attorney, explains that there's a problem with the fact that the Public Health Emergency/Covid credits override the legitimate process of what used to be early release for good behavior.
"This was something that was made up by the Murphy administration and the Legislature. This has nothing to do with time off for good behavior, this has nothing to do with typical parole times," Testa said. "It seemed that the Murphy administration and the members of the Democrat-controlled legislature were more concerned with the prison population than they were our corrections officers, our first responders, the civilians that work in every single one of our prisons throughout the state of New Jersey and yet, we're supposed to, as a body of the people accept this release and deal with the consequences and there have been some very grave consequences of the early release of some of these inmates. We have to acknowledge the fact that there's been a significant recidivism rate and some of these inmates who were released early due to Covid credit, committed some very heinous crimes very shortly after being released. These are obviously people that should not have been released and the Murphy administration has to answer for that."
Senator O'Scanlon is equally as troubled by the heinous crimes committed by some of the inmates who have been released early under these Covid credits.
"A guy that beat another man to death with a bat with nails sticking out of it, almost beheading him -- that's what he was convicted of -- he was denied parole not long ago in 2019 because he had a history of exposing himself to female guards. This is one of the people the Murphy administration let out early," O'Scanlon said. "There's that one example but who else is in this batch of 6,200 people and what are they capable of, what crimes have they committed that we don't know about yet? There probably were some folks you could justify if you wanted to minimize some, significantly, some folks in prison but this was not done with any depth touch, this was a mass dumping of people."
With what the Murphy administration cited as concerns about the spread of Covid in correctional facilities and prisons, one of the matters that may have been overlooked was the extensive process facilities such as the one in Monmouth County have done to clean and keep people safe.
"It's one of the cleanest and one of the best-run facilities -- nationally accredited for over a decade now and we're really proud of that," Sheriff Golden said.
As for the Covid credits leading to inmates being released, Sheriff Golden explains that there's more to understand about what this exactly means.
"Covid credits are days, it's not a credit, they call it a credit because it's nice but it's days and it's three-to-one. When you receive a covid credit, you're receiving three extra days per one day served. If you were supposed to be in for a four-month period, you're serving a month," Golden said.
Do the inmates released early under these Covid credits have to finish their sentence at some point?
"Where do we stand with these individuals who were sentenced? Did the governor commute their sentences? Did he sign some type of parting? Do they need to come back and serve the remaining of their sentences, at least for county inmates? They did Covid credits for state inmates but on the county level, when all of these counties were ordered to release inmates -- obviously by the protest of our office, and myself and a lot of others -- but what is the status of all these county inmates that were released? Are they commuting the rest of their sentence? Because that should be on paper," Golden said.
The Bail Reform Laws changed nearly four years ago now, which are intended to release non-violent offenders with little or no access to money in an effort to reduce the prison population, has led to some unintended consequences in certain circles.
Unless you're charged with Murder under the new laws, you could be released within 72-hours of an arrest.
Bail reform has circled back to the forefront of concerns with the release of prisoners by the Murphy administration.
"We're releasing criminals that are convicted," Golden said. "For instance, in Senator O'Scanlon's District (13 in Monmouth County), we released, during Covid, during the ordered release that Governor Murphy ordered in Monmouth County -- we released 44 -- we were ordered to release 69 (and) we contested some of those, but out of the 44 here's a snapshot that people need to be aware of -- aggravated assault -- those were convictions, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer in Hazlet that cost him his career out of service along with his K-9 -- those two individuals (who committed those crimes) were released, failure to register as sex offenders -- those individuals were released back in our community."
Sheriff Golden said that one of those 44 in particular who had her release ordered by the state, ended up going on to commit dozens of other crimes.
"One person, over 40 encounters -- 44 to be exact -- with law enforcement since she was released two-years ago," Golden said. "You tell me that one of those encounters can just as easily go bad with law enforcement and you're tempting fate when it comes to that. 44-times -- things like petty theft from pharmacy stores in and around her region to some aggravated assaults -- slapping some people -- but those are the stats and I'm sure you'll see those stats around the state of New Jersey as you dig in and look at the statistics."
As part of a 2019 exclusive interview inside the Monmouth County Correctional Institution, Sheriff Golden spoke, in part, about the effects the new bail reform laws are having on rehabilitation efforts.
The points made then are still relevant today with just as many if not more concerns created from the bail reform laws.
"One of the things that bail reform did not do was touch on the alternative methods -- things like mental illness and housing for mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction," Golden said. "We're just getting to the mandatory re-entry program with a re-entry coordinator in each county, we don't even know what that looks like yet, it's not even funded yet."
Senator O'Scanlon feels these bail reform laws rush the process following an arrest and while the violent offenders should be behind bars following their arrest, there are circumstances for non-violent offenders where they should be released.
"We need to start considering the demoralization of law enforcement. When they arrest someone for a pretty serious crime, they (the person arrested) are so quick to be back out on the street, sometimes before the paperwork is done," O'Scanlon said. "Sometimes, and again you don't want to put people in jail who don't need to be in jail, we should err on that side, but the balance is really out of whack."
Senator O'Scanlon said that he and Senator Testa plan on addressing this issue with regard to bail reform, "to make sure that bail reform is the fluid policy that it should be as we go forward."
Not everyone should be jailed, the Senators explain, and the system currently in place does look out for the innocent.
"Our entire criminal justice system already does err on the side of making sure that we don't imprison or jail people who are innocent. Our entire justice system is based on innocent until proven guilty," Testa said.
While the Covid credits have accelerated the issue, there has been a longer-running issue with prisoner release and with barring law enforcement from cooperating with federal agencies such as ICE.
In 2019, then New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered, even sending a letter, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan to discard their agreements with ICE, which would prevent their assistance with ongoing investigations.
Sheriff Golden even clarified, explained while addressing the media in September of 2019, that their cooperation with ICE takes place only within the confines of the MCCI, a partnership that, to that point, had been going on for more than 10-years.
Senator Testa reiterates the issue with bail reform, prisoner release, etc. has been going on for a while and it includes then-AG Grewal preventing the cooperation with ICE.
"Let's make no mistake about this, this is not something new, this is a part of an overall plan to air on the side of the person whose already been convicted, not the person who's accused but the person who's already convicted," Testa said. "There were 10-systems available to law enforcement to make sure that some of these people who have aliases, maybe wanted in another county, have warrants from another county or another jurisdiction in the state of New Jersey, another state, another country -- they're not allowed to have those tools at their fingertips -- why would you do that, why would you handcuff law enforcement? It makes absolutely no sense."
Sheriff Golden says that the 287-g program was just one part of the Immigration Trust Directive, which actually affects police all over the state, including local municipalities.
"Not one local police department can contact ICE or are able to cooperate with ICE," Golden said. "Then they (the state) tried to bring that into the courtrooms and courthouses."
There are concerns, issues that have been building up for years in New Jersey.
Since the Covid pandemic began, New Jersey has had the 2nd largest reduction in the prison population in the country trailing only West Virginia, according to a report shared by The Gothamist, and overall New Jersey's prison population during the first 11-months of the pandemic alone dropped 40-percent overall.
In a recent interview with Townsquare Media News, Congressman Jeff Van Drew explained that he felt the prison reduction was part of an effort by the Murphy administration to save money.
"There are ways to save money and there are ways not to save money. The way this governor likes to save money is releasing violent prisoners from prison -- that's an interesting way to save money, to say the least -- so, they're releasing them over and over again, literally individuals who raped, abused, and in some cases, killed children," Van Drew told Townsquare Media News. "They should never be released, what kind of state does that, what kind of governor would do that, they should be in prison for life."
The release of certain, particularly violent criminals early has raised concern levels for many people in government, law enforcement, and everyday civilians.
"To Sheriff Golden's point, a lot of these individuals had sentences, they were sentenced which means they're now guilty, that they didn't actually serve, whether it was something that had plead to and agree to serve or whether it was a sentence given to them by one the judges of the Superior Court -- the governor, in his infinite wisdom and ultimate exercise of executive authority -- and I, say that with my tongue firmly planted in cheek -- just decided to make the sentences different. I really think he overstepped his bounds in doing so and he did it under the cover of Covid, which is obscene."
"New Jersey already started from a position of ensuring that we had appropriate sentences which means the least amount of punishment that was appropriate and the governor has just randomly chosen and has continued to do so, even under the auspicious of Covid, even after the Covid threat has passed," O'Scanlon said. "Sheriff Golden made the point, there were times he (Murphy) was releasing people when there was almost no Covid in the prison, to begin with. The governor took what were already short sentences and slashed them even more and that's a problem."
"The other portion of that, and it is a balance, I will tell you, as running one of the largest county jails in the state of New Jersey, it's a balance," Golden said. "Imprisonment is expensive, it definitely got more expensive during Covid because we had to do a lot of segregation and separation of the population inside the facility and so that creates a tremendous amount of overtime and a tremendous amount of workload, and hats off really to the unsung heroes, and that's our corrections officers."
What are the short-term and long-term solutions to address early prisoner release due to Covid credits, letting violent criminals out of prison early on terms other than good behavior/parole, and ultimately keeping our communities safe?
"There needs to be monitoring, there needs to be better monitoring through our parole supervision obviously through the Department of Probation. There's some great re-entry programs to train individuals to have a skill or a trade for when they leave the inmate population, I'm all for that, we want to make sure they have necessary skills," Testa said. "Those are just three things right there that we can do, that's really, low-hanging fruit to make sure that the citizens of the state of New Jersey feel safe and remain safe."
"I agree with the Senator, re-entry is big, we've done it here in Monmouth (County) and we try and get them from Point-A to Point-B. You can't give them a bus ticket and expect them to end up in the re-entry office down the road or in a couple towns over, it has to be a direct re-entry system, they have to be embedded in the facility so that we get them the services," Golden said. "The other things that were missed during bail reform need to be corrected -- the classification system inside corrections offices, and the mental health and addiction services outside of the facility including homelessness."
"We need to make sure that we re-do bail reform and make the changes that we discussed here today to make sure that we're permitting the right people to not go to jail while making sure that folks that should be committed to jail and still have some bail, have that happen as well," O'Scanlon said. "Then we need to make sure that, on the back end, we make sure that folks serve the sentence that's appropriate -- both from the punitive standpoint and from a public safety standpoint."