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Trapped in Limbo: Pretrial Detention during the Pandemic in New Jersey

Many of our office’s clients have had their criminal or traffic matters from late 2019 or early 2020 pushed back months due to the pandemic. Some seemingly simple matters have yet to be resolved and clients are waiting in limbo for their next hearing. However, this pales in comparison to those individuals who are in jail awaiting their trial during the pandemic.

In 2020, hundreds of individuals convicted of low-level crimes were released in an effort to stop the risk of infection among those incarcerated individuals. But this agreement neglected those who needed a jury for their hearings. Due to the pandemic, new jury trials have been suspended and the previous deadlines for when trials must start have been extended.

Currently, the Supreme Court is considering releasing individuals in county jails as delays continue in scheduling jury trials. Both the public defender’s office and the ACLU of New Jersey had written to the Supreme Court in December arguing about the injustice of these individuals awaiting trial in jail during a pandemic when they had yet to be convicted of a crime. Their continued argument is that these individuals are being denied a speedy trial and are at an increased risk of infection from COVID-19.

The Attorney General’s Office and the county prosecutor’s association are against the release and each has written a brief defending their stance. Among their reasoning was the notion that anyone who can safely await their trial at home has already been released. Additionally, prosecutors stated that the risk for incarcerated persons catching the virus was exaggerated. On December 23, wardens stated that only 160 incarcerated persons tested positive of the almost 10,000 in county jails. However, by December 29, Hudson County jail saw its own number of infected persons nearly double from the week before.

If the Supreme Court agrees to the plan to release individuals, about 650 people would be eligible to go home. These persons eligible for release would be composed of those who had already waited more than six months for a trial and did not have first-degree charges. While those with first-degree charges would not be released, they would be eligible for new hearings for a judge to reconsider their release. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner scheduled oral arguments for January 19, 2021.

Our offices have advocated releasing our clients from detention on numerous occasions and we keep updated on the relevant case law to do so. During the pandemic our clients and many others have been victims of time, awaiting trial dates that are not coming anytime soon. In State v. Harper (2020), an unpublished decision, one defendant was described as a “hostage of the pandemic,” having waited for months behind bars, despite the fact that, according to N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(f) detention hearings are permitted “before or after a determination by the court at any time before trial.” Our offices have used this case and others to successful results for our own clients.

The Law Offices of Eric B. Morrell are committed to fighting for our clients. Our offices have worked hard to get our clients released from pretrial detention. If you or someone you know is incarcerated and has been awaiting a trial for some time, please contact our offices for a complimentary consultation.

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