On February 11, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the statewide case of In the Matter of the Request to Release Certain Pretrial Detainees. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(f) concerned whether the COVID-related delays in presenting cases to grand juries and bringing them to trial required the release of certain pretrial detainees from our county jails.
Chief Justice Rabner wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: This Order to Show Cause raises questions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of in-person criminal jury trials on defendants who have been detained pretrial. Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA or Act), defendants who pose a serious risk of non-appearance, danger, or obstruction can be detained before trial if no combination of conditions of release will reasonably guard against those risks. Because criminal jury trials remain suspended, the length of pretrial detention has been extended in many cases.
In response to the present situation, the Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey jointly seek two forms of relief: (1) the release of all defendants detained for six months or longer whose most serious charge is a second-degree offense or lower, with an opportunity for the State to object in individual cases and seek to justify continued detention under an enhanced burden of proof; and (2) new detention hearings for all defendants detained for six months or longer who are charged with a first-degree offense and entitled to a presumption of release.
There is an art to deterring the exact nature of the relief that is requested. A blanket request to release all detainees of six months or more who are not facing a first-degree charge would probably be considered unreasonable. Here the defense advocates have included an opportunity for the State to address in individual cases as a means to appear more reasonable.