The New Jersey compassionate release law that took effect last February was supposed to make it easier for gravely ill or dying inmates to get out of prison early, and to save taxpayers the cost of their care.

But two cases before the New Jersey Supreme Court will determine the measure’s reach — and whether state judges have the discretion to deny releases for end-of-life prisoners who meet strict medical and safety requirements outlined by the Legislature.

“[It] will really determine the fate of this law,” said Alex Shalom, senior attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey, which has filed amicus briefs in both cases. “It will determine whether the law can achieve its laudable objective of increasing compassion and saving the state money.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the compassionate release request for a man who shot and killed a Newark police detective inside an Essex County courtroom in 1993.

The justices will also weigh on a second case regarding the compassionate release of a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband, and who was freed earlier this year due to her permanent physical incapacitation, after the successful appeal of a Superior Court ruling that she be kept in prison.

Low rate of release

Gov. Phil Murphy first signed the compassionate release law in October 2020, but it didn’t take effect until last year. The measure acted on recommendations by the bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission that called for a new program to replace the state’s medical parole law, which wasn’t effectively releasing the sickest inmates. A 2019 report by the commission found the medical parole system was rarely used, and fewer than five inmates were freed over the past five years.

But releases under the new law are on pace to match release rates under the medical parole program: Only two inmates have been released since the law was implemented 19 months ago, court records and attorneys said. One of those is the woman whose case is being heard Tuesday.

“This was designed to save money and increase compassion, and releasing one person a year does not get that done,” Shalom said. “This isn't going to open the jailhouse doors. Instead, this is a statute that applies pretty precisely to only the sickest and most debilitated people in prison.”

Under the new law, decisions on compassionate release were transferred from the parole board to the courts. The old law disqualified people convicted of certain crimes, such as murder. But under the new law, any prisoner who can prove a terminal condition or permanent physical incapacitation and is not considered a public safety risk — regardless of the crime committed — is eligible for release.

The measure additionally requires the Department of Corrections to notify the state Office of the Public Defender of prisoners diagnosed with grave medical conditions so that it can begin the process for compassionate release. Gothamist requested information from the DOC Monday on how many prisoners have applied for compassionate release, and is awaiting a reply.

Lawmakers, however, also wanted the compassionate release program to alleviate the crowded prison system and the high costs of caring for inmates who need 24-hour care. A second bill requires the DOC to annually report cost savings to the Legislature and governor, and redirect those dollars toward a “Corrections Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention Fund” for recidivism reduction programs.

The DOC sent to the Office of Legislative Services its first report in June and said the one person granted compassionate release in the first year of the program saved the department $697, over 25 days, but the numbers rely heavily on estimates and don’t account for certain expenses.

It estimated a cost of $8.87 per day for housing an inmate — subtracting out factors like administrative and maintenance costs, which wouldn’t go down because of the release of any one inmate. It also used an estimate of medical costs of $19 per day, but the DOC said it couldn’t isolate costs for any one particular person or group of people. Costs for terminal patients and others needing 24-hour care, though, could be much higher than the figures cited in the report, attorneys said.

The individual was released in May 2021, about a year before his scheduled parole date, the report said. It didn’t name the individual.

The woman whose case is being heard Tuesday is not counted in the report.

A DOC spokesman said the Crime Prevention Fund is still in the process of being established.

Zero compassion

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in both compassionate release cases jointly at 10 a.m.

In one case, Al-Damany Kamau, formerly known as Eddie Lee Oliver, was convicted of killing 30-year-old Detective John Sczyrek, as he entered the courthouse to testify in a drug case against Kamau’s two family members.

Kamau, 54, is bedridden with end-stage multiple sclerosis and needs 24-hour care, a medical director overseeing his treatment testified in court earlier this year. That means he can’t urinate, eat, bathe, dress himself, or perform any daily activities without assistance.

Essex County Superior Court Judge Ronald Wigler said Kamau met the benchmark set in the law — he is permanently incapacitated and unlikely to pose a public safety risk — but denied his petition in February. According to transcripts, Wigler said in court that Kamau deserves what he gave his victims: “zero compassion.” He called the crime “one of the most heinous, brutal, bold, cold-blooded premeditated murders ever committed in Essex County and dare I say the State of New Jersey.”

Wigler said the court maintained discretion, citing wording in the statute that said a judge “may,” not “shall,” release a prisoner who qualifies under compassionate release.

That’s the crux of the issue before the Supreme Court. Kamau’s public defender declined to comment and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office hasn’t yet returned a request for comment on Monday afternoon.

The second case involves a woman who also suffers from end-stage multiple sclerosis and was released on appeal this year. The woman, identified only as A.M. in court papers, was confined to the infirmary and required nursing home level care. Prosecutors argued she suffered from the condition at the time of sentencing, but the compassionate release statute only applies to conditions a person develops after being imprisoned. A Morris County Superior Court found A.M. did meet the conditions for release, but declined to free her after weighing the nature of the crime and the opposition of the victim’s family.

An Appellate Division court granted her release, writing in its ruling that it was illogical to think the Legislature intended for the courts to develop their own criteria for granting releases. It said judges should only consider the medical and safety factors outlined in the law.

The arguments before the Supreme Court this week are the second time the court will clarify the parameters of compassionate release. Last month, the court ruled that to meet the requirements of permanent physical incapacity, a prisoner needs to be unable to perform two basic living activities, not all daily functions.