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October 29, 2007

Remarkable Booker variance for "shameful" jail conditions in NJ

As detailed in this article from the Newark Star-Ledger , a district judge in New Jersey last week granted a variance in response to evidence that prison conditions in a county jail were horrid.  Here are the basics from the news account:

Ruling that overcrowding and poor conditions at the Passaic County Jail are "shameful" and have been ignored for too long, a federal judge has taken the dramatic step of cutting the sentence of a federal inmate being housed there by seven months.  The federal public defender's office in New Jersey has argued for such reductions for years, but the case marked the first time it has been successful, officials said.

U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden issued her ruling Thursday after presiding over hearings in which the inmate complained of putrid air, mold and other problems and officials acknowledged a deteriorating structure that lacked fire sprinklers and reached 100 degrees on hot days. 

The half-century old jail, located in Paterson, was designed to hold 896 inmates, but houses more than 2,000. Hayden said "the mind boggles" at the living space: 64 are housed in each of the jail's 54-by-40-foot dorm-style units where they sleep, shower, and use toilets that lack ventilation and are six or seven feet away from dining tables.  Hayden said the reduction in the sentence was needed as "a statement that there is a law of reason and fairness behind detention."  The case, she said, "forces the question of how long we continue to turn a deaf ear, mine included.  It has become a tired fact of life in these courtrooms that Passaic County Jail is overcrowded, is breaking down, and is a very rough place to serve time."

A helpful reader sent me a copy of Judge Hayden's opinion, which in part connects this variance to the 3553(a) factor of needing to "promote respect for the law."  The opinion can be downloaded below, and here is a key snippet:

Respect for the moral law that makes the conditions in Passaic County Jail stick in the craw supports a variance, however big or small, as a statement that there is a law of reason and fairness behind detention. "Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485 (1928)(Brandeis, J., dissenting).

Download sutton_opinion.pdf

October 29, 2007 at 09:16 AM | Permalink

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