ESSEX COUNTY PROSECUTORS OFFICE EMPLOYEES RETURN TO FULL TIME / IN PERSON WORK:
Welcome back ECPO! Although the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office never ceased operations during the pandemic as of August 2021 all units are up and running, in-person, at full capacity. All the employees who worked from home have returned to the office. Most are vaccinated. Those who are not are being tested weekly with the results reported to the County. We are following the local, state, and federal guidelines recommended to keep both staff and the public we serve safe. That includes social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands frequently and working cooperatively with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Essex County Assignment Judge, defense lawyers and others to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Unlike other businesses and even some government agencies, we were never shutdown. Throughout this period both the civilian and sworn law enforcement employees of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office continued working. Some worked from home. Others, such as detectives, are engaged in work that often cannot be done at home. Serious crimes such as homicides, shootings, sexual assaults, child abuse, domestic violence, and others were actively investigated even in the face of the March 2020 shutdown. Even as employees fell sick, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office has worked diligently to maintain its important work of investigating and prosecuting crimes while also protecting its employees and the public from COVID-19.
In the early months of the pandemic, we worked to release inmates who faced health issues that would make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. We also worked to reduce the number of detainees awaiting trial by either not seeking detention or releasing those in custody when appropriate. On March 22, 2020, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the New Jersey Attorney General, the County Prosecutors Association, the Office of the Public Defender, and the American Civil Liberties Union signed an amended consent order to release certain inmates in the county jails due to COVID unless objected to by the County Prosecutor. After analyzing the list of 87 inmates in the Essex County Jail, we consented to the release of 47 inmates. We objected to the remaining 40 inmates being released. As always, we assessed the appropriateness of such release requests on a case-by-case basis. The Court, after reviewing our objections, released 16 of the 40 over our objection. We also reviewed cases involving state prisoners. Consistent with the Governor’s Executive Order 124, from April 10, 2020 to April 26, 2020 we did not oppose the release of 221 state prison inmates who had cases in Essex County.
In the 18-month period from March 1, 2020 to Aug. 31, 2021, the ECPO opened 15,501 new cases involving 17,517 defendants. During that same period 12,879 cases were resolved. Guilty pleas were reached in 2,404 cases, the rest were resolved by dismissal, downgrade or were no billed. The pandemic created a backlog but the ECPO continued to move cases at a significant rate during the pandemic.
Perhaps more importantly, many procedures and policies that were adopted during the early days of the pandemic to reduce the jail population and the number of people who need to come to court are still in place. For instance, even though the courts have reopened to the public, many proceedings continue to occur virtually. While we are back physically, make no mistake, we recognize we are in a fluid situation. When needed we will adjust our policies and procedures, based on science, to ensure the wellbeing of all.
As we look back at the last 18 months, we are grateful for the quiet unsung heroes who continued to show up and do their jobs with vigor and commitment. From the cleaning people, to support staff, to the victim/witness advocates, to the lawyers and detectives, your efforts have not gone unnoticed. As we move forward, we recognize that this new normal comes with understandable fear, anxiety, and even grief as we consider the losses we have experienced. Let me reassure the employees of ECPO and the public that we remain committed to your health, safety, and wellbeing as well as the pursuit of justice.
The pandemic has caused us to all lose a lot. Most notably, we have lost family and friends who transitioned during the past year and a half. In the vast majority of those cases, we were unable to memorialize their lives as was done previously. In honor of those we have lost and in consideration of those young people who cannot be vaccinated as well as those with underlying health conditions, this is a time to show grace and consideration to those around us.
Together, we can move ahead with a renewed sense of purpose.
Theodore N. Stephens II
Acting Essex County Prosecutor
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