criminal justice

P. Kenneth Burns

  New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed four pieces of legislation aimed at reforming prison policies Monday night. Three bills focused on sentencing and one focused on how prisoners are treated during public health emergencies.


New Jersey reported another 722 cases of coronavirus Wednesday, bringing the state’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 205,275.

Another nine residents died from complications of COVID-19, which means there have now been 14,335 lab-confirmed fatalities and another 1,787 probable deaths.

The state’s test positivity rate was 3%, the highest it had been since mid-July.

The rate of transmission was 1.15, which means for every 100 people who caught coronavirus they passed it to another 115 residents.

Coronavirus update: 8 N.J. prisoners die of COVID-19

Apr 21, 2020

New Jersey reported 3,528 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the state total to 88,806 cases.

Another 177 New Jersey residents died as a result of coronavirus for a total of 4,377 fatalities.

Hospital discharges outpace new admissions

The rate of new hospitalizations of those sickened with COVID-19 is slowing in New Jersey, a positive sign that officials said showed the statewide stay-at-home order was succeeding at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

New Jersey will eliminate surcharges on motor vehicle violations, which defendants are required to pay in addition to court-imposed fines and penalties.

Lawmakers and defense attorneys said New Jersey was one of just four states that levy additional surcharges on defendants for infractions like unsafe or drunk driving, a practice they suggested disproportionately impacts poorer residents.

New Jersey lawmakers advanced separate election-related bills this week that aim to register more people to vote and change how the state draws legislative district maps.

The proposals were heard just a few weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a measure into law that gives New Jersey residents on probation and parole voting rights.

The first bill would end the practice of so-called “prison gerrymandering,” in which states count people where they are incarcerated instead of where they previously lived for the purpose of drawing electoral maps.

New Jersey will extend voting rights to residents who are on parole or probation, allowing nearly 73,000 people across the state to cast ballots for the first time next year.

At a bill signing Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said the sea change in criminal justice policy was part of his “second chance agenda” that prioritizes social justice and correcting historical racial discrimination.

“This is not and should not be one [political] party or the other,” Murphy said. “This is the right thing to do.”

New Jersey’s top law enforcement official said a new set of rules will improve accountability and transparency among police officers and prosecutors in an era when the criminal justice system is under increased scrutiny.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal laid out the changes in a handful of directives released Wednesday that he said were unprecedented.

“These documents reflect the most significant restructuring of policing practices certainly during my tenure as attorney general, and perhaps in the history of the Office of the Attorney General,” Grewal said.

New Jersey prisons and jails may have to offer blood testing for hepatitis B and C to all incarcerated, under a proposal scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

The state Department of Corrections has come under fire from some criminal justice and public health advocates who say its policy of targeted screening for the virus falls short.

“Hepatitis is a scourge. There is no denying that. But thanks to breakthroughs in medicine, it is now a curable scourge,” said Dr. Aakash Shah, an emergency room physician and the medical director of the nonprofit New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

A method long used by police to spot drivers who are high on drugs will go under the microscope in New Jersey.

The state Supreme Court this week ordered a hearing on the scientific reliability of the drug recognition expert, or DRE, methodology.

It comes after critics challenged the 12-step protocol in court, claiming that it was not grounded in science and that police officers were not trained as medical professionals.

Time is up for mandatory minimums in New Jersey.

Citing racial disparities in the prison population, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday that he agreed with a state commission’s recommendation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes.

“They haven’t served the cause of justice. They have devastated the lives of too many individuals and families, mostly people of color,” Murphy said, tying the harsh sentences to the War on Drugs of the 1980s. “It is past time that they are retired.”

A new report says New Jersey can do better when it comes to offering reentry services to former prisoners.

The report from the New Jersey Reentry Services Commission, which included advocates, legislators, and a former governor, listed 100 recommendations for the state to help people transition back into daily life.

“We as a society have created obstacles to them that can and should go away,” said attorney Larry Lustberg, who co-chaired the commission.

One of New Jersey’s most recent efforts to combat gun violence is off to a busy start.

Judges have approved requests to use the state’s new “red flag” law more than once a day on average since it took effect on Sept. 1. Under the legislation, law enforcement agencies can confiscate the guns of a person who poses a threat to themselves or others after getting judicial approval.

Such laws are becoming more common across the U.S. as states try out new strategies to prevent future mass shootings and reduce overall gun violence, including suicides.

New Jersey officials are telling firearms manufacturers and dealers to back certain gun safety measures — or risk losing the state as a lucrative customer.

The novel strategy is the latest salvo in Gov. Phil Murphy’s ongoing effort to make the state’s gun control policies even tougher.

At a press conference Tuesday, Murphy said he would use the state’s substantial purchasing power as leverage to nudge private firms into backing policies he said would reduce gun violence.

New Jersey prison officials have agreed to transfer a transgender woman from a men’s prison to the state’s only all-female correctional facility, her attorneys said Thursday.

The woman, called by the pseudonym Sonia Doe, alleged in a lawsuit that she was harassed and assaulted for being transgender during the 17 months she spent in four different men’s prisons across the state.

“She’s been subjected to extreme harassment, violence, and discrimination on a daily basis,” said Jeanne LoCicero, legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey and one of Doe’s attorneys.

In 2018, New Jersey saw an uptick in the number of reported bias incidents, which occur when victims are targeted for their race, religion, sexual orientation, or other legally protected category.

But what got the particular attention of law enforcement officials was that nearly half of the known perpetrators were minors.

New Jersey hopes a new training program will stem the rising rate of suicides by police officers.

According to state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the unique stresses of law enforcement make cops more likely to struggle with mental health issues.

“We outfit them with protective clothing. We equip them with guns and vests,” Grewal said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “But for too long we’ve ignored a different threat, a threat that claims more and more lives each and every year.”

New Jersey will dramatically limit how its state prisons and county jails use solitary confinement, under a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday.

The bill will exempt certain “vulnerable” inmates from being kept in isolation and lessen the use of the practice on prisoners for whom solitary confinement is deemed necessary.

“I don’t think it can be overstated how real this is for so many people who’ve been really mentally, emotionally, and spiritually tortured through long-term isolation,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury.

Black and Latino leaders in New Jersey say Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders are not doing enough to advance the cause of social justice in the state.

At an event Thursday in Trenton, a coalition of lawmakers and advocates called on the top Democrats to take up or sign several pieces of legislation they said would help black and Latino residents across the Garden State.

Screams so loud that sleep became impossible. Old food rotting in cells. Little to no human interaction for months or years on end.

Those are some of the experiences described Thursday by former New Jersey inmates who said they were held in solitary confinement, as state lawmakers considered legislation to clamp down on the practice critics say can have long-term, negative repercussions.

A former New Jersey State Police Academy cadet has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, claiming an instructor sexually harassed her for months.

Identified as S.S. in the lawsuit because it involves a possible sex crime, the woman said the male instructor fixated on her, repeatedly pulling her aside and making romantic advances.

The harassment was so extreme, the lawsuit said, that fellow cadets began referring to her as the instructor’s wife.

The New Jersey Judiciary is asking for dedicated funding in the state budget to pay for the extra personnel and equipment required to operate its pretrial system.

In 2017, New Jersey virtually eliminated cash bail, and judges began deciding whether to keep defendants in jail before trial or let them go free based on the risk they posed to the public.

The changes affected courts across the state and required additional training as well as new staff and equipment.

Rates of recidivism and failure to appear for court increased slightly after New Jersey virtually eliminated cash bail in 2017, according to a report released Tuesday by the state Judiciary.

The data was viewed as a victory by state court officials, who said the increases were statistically insignificant and suggested critics were wrong to predict that releasing more nonviolent criminal defendants before their trials would wreak havoc on the justice system.

Two key committees in the New Jersey Legislature have approved bills to legalize recreational marijuana and allow past offenders to expunge their criminal records.

Gov. Phil Murphy and top Democrats in the Legislature have long agreed on legalization in principle but had been negotiating the details of such legislation for months.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee held votes on the two bills late Monday night, following hours of delays and last-minute amendments to the legislation.

Advocates are hoping a recent endorsement from Gov. Phil Murphy will mean legislation to restore voting rights to New Jersey residents with criminal convictions finally advances.

A stream of supporters testified before a state Senate committee Thursday on a bill to expand voting rights to people on probation or parole, and those currently serving sentences. Former inmates no longer on parole or probation can vote in New Jersey.

Ang Santos/WBGO

When someone dies at the hands of police, can local prosecutors be trusted to investigate the cops?

Some criminal justice advocates in New Jersey say no. They want police-involved violence to be scrutinized by outside investigators they believe will be more impartial than county prosecutors who may be cozy with local police departments.

Lawmakers in New Jersey have approved a bill that would require the state attorney general to investigate any deaths that occur while suspects are in police custody or during an interaction with police.

Activists who say local prosecutors cannot impartially investigate police officers they regularly work with are gratified with the move.

Yet state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the man who would find himself in a newly powerful role should the bill become law, said it could damage faith in the justice system.

Here’s how Robert Still describes himself these days: “Been married twice, got six kids, and I lost my license.”

The Camden resident was released from a New Jersey jail about two years ago after serving an eight-month sentence for receiving stolen property and domestic violence.

He wants to restart his life, but he cannot even start a car.

That’s because Still has outstanding municipal court fines dating as far back as 1984 and totaling about $2,000 — an amount Still says he cannot afford — which prohibit him from getting a driver’s license.

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey finds that state and local law enforcement agencies are seizing cash and other property from those accused of crimes with little oversight.

The process known as civil asset forfeiture is happening in every county in New Jersey, according to the report.