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NJ Supreme Court: Excess Time in Prison Must Be Used to Reduce Parole Period

“Parole is the legal equivalent of imprisonment”

by Matt Clarke

On August 3, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the time a prisoner spent in prison in excess of that allowed by his sentence must be used to reduce his period of parole supervision.
Paulino Njango agreed to plead guilty to multiple counts contained in two indictments from 2006 and 2007, related to the kidnapping and attempted murder of his ex-wife and her mother. His overall agreed sentence was an 18-year term, followed by five years of parole supervision.

Under the state’s No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, at least 85% of the sentence must be served before parole eligibility, followed by a parole term of five-years for a first-degree crime or three years for a second-degree crime.

Njango then filed a motion to correct his sentence, arguing that the sentence for his 2007 charges should have been consecutive to the sentence for his 2006 charges because he committed the crimes charged in 2007 while on bail for the 2006 charges. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5(h) requires consecutive sentences for crimes committed while on bail unless the sentencing court finds such a sentence would be a “serious injustice.”

The trial court denied the motion, though, finding the statute did not apply to plea arrangement sentences. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded because the trial court had not communicated a “serious injustice” finding, leaving Njango—a former Marine paratrooper who was involuntarily discharged following a jump marred by a parachute failure that left him with a serious head injury and mental health issues—to believe his sentences were to be served as his plea deal said.

On remand, Njango entered into a new plea agreement with 10 years as the longest sentence on the 2006 charges and 8 years for second-degree assault as the longest sentence on the 2007 charges. Because the sentences within each indictment were concurrent, this made for an aggregate sentence of 18 years, 85% of which he would have to serve under NERA before he would then begin an aggregate eight-year term of parole supervision.
But the trial court denied Njango’s motion to count the 2,692 days of imprisonment already served toward both sentences, counting it and his 660 days of jail time only toward the front end of the aggregate 18-year sentence—leaving him with over six years left to serve.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the 2,692 days had to be applied to each sentence because he served the time simultaneously on both indictments, more than enough time to wipe out those remaining six years. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for certification, and Njango was released from prison the next day.

Njango then filed a petition under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, arguing his release was delayed by the second sentencing court’s refusal to grant him the proper credits for time served, resulting in an additional one year and seven months of imprisonment while on appeal. He asked that his parole period be reduced by that amount.

But the court denied the petition, and the Appellate Division affirmed. With the aid of attorneys Cody T. Mason and Joseph E. Krakora of the Public Defender’s Office, Njango successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for certification.

The court rejected the State’s argument that the parole period could not be reduced due to public safety considerations or because it was specified in the NERA, noting that time spent in prison was at least as beneficial to public safety as time spent on parole.

It further held that the fundamental fairness doctrine required Njango not to be arbitrarily denied credit for time served in prison. Additionally, should Njango not have his parole reduced by the excess time he spent in prison, he would end up serving a unitary sentence in excess of the sentence he actually received. Holding that “parole is the legal equivalent of imprisonment,” the court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment and remanded to the state parole board to recalculate Njango’s parole period after giving him credit for the excess time in prison. See: State v. Njango, 247 N.J. 533, 255 A.3d 1164 (NJ 2021).

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Related legal case

State v. Njango