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New Jersey Over Detains Prisoner Two Years Due to Illegal Sentence Calculation

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division has held that the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) cannot depart from the terms a sentencing judge imposes. In September 1994, prisoner Larry Hill was released on parole for a 1990 conviction. On January 31, 1997 and July 25, 1997, he received five year sentences for new charges, which were to run concurrently. On May 21, 1997, Hill's parole was revoked. Because the sentences were imposed at different times and with the parole violation considered an aggregation, the NJDOC ran the five year sentences consecutively, and Hill's established maximum release date was set for October 29, 2004.

Hill wrote the trial judge, Honorable Hector DeSoto, who twice clarified his order to NJDOC as the sentences to be run concurrently pursuant to the plea bargain. Unfortunately, the state has shown a dogged resistance to admit that they committed error," wrote Hill in court documents after NJDOC refused to heed Judge DeSoto's clarification.

The NJDOC argued that state law allowed it to: 1) aggregate the January 31, 1997 with the May parole violation; and 2) sentences imposed at different times cannot be run concurrently and consecutively. The Superior Court noted the NJDOC failed to cite any case law that allows it to depart from the terms of the sentence imposed by the sentencing judge pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement. The Court ordered Hill's sentence to be recalculated.

T. Gary Mitchell, the former head of the now defunct Office of Inmate Advocacy, was not surprised by this case, as two years ago he warned state officials that communication mix-ups and indifference to prisoners' rights could be keeping prisoners behind bars past their release dates. After the Hill decision, NJDOC acknowledged at least two other prisoners would be released and 136 others may have their sentences reduced.

Mitchell said that because the state's two law schools have eliminated the legal clinics that once did prisoner litigation, and the Public Advocate's Office was eliminated a decade ago by Gov. Christie Whitman, prisoner's have few places to turn to when they believe they are being over detained. Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segar disputed that position. When issues of the correctness of a sentence are brought to our attention, the client's attorney's should and does take action to correct the problem," said Segar.

That help, however, may be negligible. In my experience, generally, inmates are better versed in this than attorneys. This isn't something attorneys study," said Maria Noto, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. As a result of NJDOC's erroneous calculations of his sentence, Hill served an extra two years in prison before he was released from the South Wood State Prison on September 26, 2003. See: Hill v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, New Jersey Superior Court, Docket No. 469-02T2. Additional Source: Star-Ledger. This unpublished opinion is available on PLN's website.

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Related legal case

Hill v. New Jersey DOC