Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order late Sunday that allows inmates serving in county jails to be released this week.
Prosecutors can file objections to the release of specific inmates and have a judge hold a hearing.
Rabner's order freeing inmates came after the state public defender's office petitioned the state supreme court, arguing that keeping prisoners detained posed a public health threat. Officials in Hudson County said Sunday that two inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting a modified lockdown of the facility housing them.
The Supreme Court order allows inmates serving sentences of less than a year in county jails on municipal court convictions or as part of probationary sentences to be released this week. They will resume their sentences when the health crisis concludes, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
Prosecutors can file objections to the release of specific inmates, and those who are released will have to abide by any restrictions as part of their probation. The order doesn't apply to inmates serving in state prison on more serious crimes.
"I take no pleasure in temporarily releasing or suspending county jail sentences, but this is the most significant public health crisis we've faced in our state's history, and it's forcing us to take actions that we wouldn't consider during normal times" Grewal said.
Inmates who have already tested positive for COVID-19 won't be released until a plan for isolation or mandatory self-quarantine is approved.
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