(Reuters) - New Jersey said on Monday it plans to temporarily release low-risk inmates serving county jail sentences to limit the spread of the coronavirus, following similar moves by some cities and counties in the United States.
The announcement followed an order on Sunday night by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to suspend or commute sentences imposed for probation violations and municipal court convictions.
The order will free up to 1,000 inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said. State Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal told a news conference they would be released no later than Tuesday morning.
As a career prosecutor, Grewal said he “took no pleasure” in releasing inmates but that the move was warranted by the seriousness of the health risk. He also pointed to the infections that had taken hold in New York City jails.
“We know and we’ve seen across the river that jails can be incubators for disease, so we have to take bold and drastic steps,” Grewal said, adding inmates would be under stay-at-home orders and complete their sentences once the crisis was over.
Jails and prisons are scrambling to safeguard a captive population that includes many people with underlying medical problems.
The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, nearly 2.3 million as of 2017, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and another 745,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Last week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the release of 40 inmates from Rikers Island jail in light of the pandemic, and on Sunday said 23 more would be released.
Other cities and counties across the United States are considering or have enacted similar policies.
Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the county had taken steps since late February to reduce its jail’s population by 617 inmates. This was done by releasing inmates with less than 30 days on their sentences and by changing bail policies used to determine which arrestees would get a citation versus being booked into custody, he said.
While many state prisons have taken steps to limit the spread of the virus such as banning visitors, they generally require a court order to release inmates. Federal prisons face similar restrictions, although President Donald Trump said on Sunday that he would consider an executive order to release “totally nonviolent prisoners” from those facilities.
An official with the union representing federal prison workers called on Attorney General William Barr to temporarily stop the movement of all prisoners between facilities until the virus can be contained.
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Additional reporting by Peter Eisler, Linda So and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Ned Park, Grant Smith and Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Grant McCool, Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman