‘God only knows what’s going to happen’: Hudson’s criminal courts grapple with indefinite shutdown
NJ.com, March 7, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, Hudson County’s criminal justice system is grappling with the effects of the shutdown.
Last week, New Jersey Supreme Court extended the suspension of jury trials until further notice. The move, intended to slow the spread of coronavirus, has led to unprecedented uncertainty and worry in the criminal justice system, lawyers said.
Many defendants are now detained in jail indefinitely, unsure of when their trials will proceed and unable to meet with their attorneys.
“My clients are sitting in the jail for longer than they normally would if this corona issue wasn’t going on,” said Max Novel, a Jersey City attorney. “They’re frustrated, and understandably so.”
For some detained defendants, he said, a trial is the only thing to look forward to. “That’s in some respects the only light at the end of the tunnel for them,” he said. “Who knows how long it’s going to be now?”
That uncertainty, coupled with mounting fears about the COVID-19 spreading in jails, has led to what criminal defense attorneys are describing as an unprecedented effort to get clients released from detention.
Jennifer Sellitti, a spokeswoman for the state Office of the Public Defender, said the agency was mounting an “all hands on deck” effort to get defendants released.
“Nobody anticipated being in a situation where you could potentially get very ill or even die,” she said, adding that detained clients are feeling a “sense of utter helplessness.”
“You feel like you have even less control of your own agency as you’re sitting there, just hoping that you don’t get it,” she said.
To slow the spread of coronavirus, the Hudson County jail halted in-person visits, and has released dozens of low-risk inmates. But despite these measures, and a lockdown put in place last month, the jail has failed to stem an outbreak, with three prison employees dying within the past week.
Dakota Kuykendall, a Jersey City attorney, said prolonged detention could exacerbate the “guilty plea problem,” a situation in which innocent defendants plead guilty to avoid more time in custody.
“Being stuck in jail right now with this going on has got to be pretty terrifying,” Kuykendall said. “The idea of getting out of jail and taking a probation sentence is attractive.”
Peter McAleer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Court System, said that the courts are working to conduct as much business online as possible.
“What we’re doing right now is continuing the work of the courts wherever possible,” said Peter McAleer, a spokesman for the New Jersey court system. “Our first priority right now is to protect the public.”
McAleer noted that other than jury trials, most other court business was proceeding “smoothly” through video and telephone conferences.
Usually, there are roughly 15 criminal trials and 40 civil cases scheduled per week, according to Hudson County Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter Bariso Jr. But only about three of each type actually take place, Bariso said, with the rest being adjourned or ending in settlements or plea deals.
But with the shutdown dragging on, many lawyers fear the courts will be swamped with a backlog of cases when they reopen. To make things worse, the county has been struggling with a shortage of judges. Currently, Hudson County has nine judicial vacancies in Superior Court, according to Bariso.
Linda Claude Oben, an attorney and former Hudson County assistant prosecutor, said the vacancies would lead to a “huge problem.”
“There was already a packed trial calendar,” she said. “God only know what’s going to happen (when) the courts are up and running again.”
McAleer said that the courts would take the challenges as they came. “We will have to deal with that,” he said. “This is obviously uncharted territory.”
— Peter D’Auria | The Jersey Journal