After 30 years in power, followed by 815 days behind bars for corruption, disgraced ex-Middlesex County sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo’s future came down to just five minutes. The Jersey Journal reports.
In five minutes on Dec. 17, he persuaded a judge in Ocean County to let him out of prison, where he had served two years and three months of a nine-year sentence for second-degree bribery. Spicuzzo had admitted that he took in $25,000 in crooked cash, only a fraction of the full toll he was accused of earning in a long-running con to sell badges in the state’s second-biggest county.
Spicuzzo’s effort to get out of prison and into a probation program was successful for a few reasons: strong support from friends and family, the argument that the loss of his pension was punishment enough, and in some ways, pure luck.
Although three judges were supposed to sign off on Spicuzzo’s release unanimously, only one showed up to work that day, so his lone vote was unanimous. Judge John McNeill also granted that Spicuzzo had unquestionable community support, and, despite an offer from Spicuzzo’s attorney, did not ask any questions about Spicuzzo’s misdeeds, according to an audio recording of the proceedings reviewed by NJ Advance Media.
“I think the gentleman will be a prime participant in this program,” said McNeill, who served as a judge in Camden County before serving as an ISP judge. “So I don’t need to hear anything further.”
McNeill added: “I note for the record there are a number of people are here on the gentleman’s behalf. Normally I ask everyone to identify themselves. I don’t think that’s necessary to do that in this case. The gentleman has a great deal of support, and the court recognizes that.”
Spicuzzo’s admission to the Intensive Supervision Program, state officials say, is no slap on the wrist. Entrants have to check in several times a day at first, so it’s referred to as a “prison without walls.” Before appearing before the judge, Spicuzzo was approved by a three-member panel composed of representatives from the Department of Corrections, the state, and a volunteer.
Peter McAleer, a spokesman for the judiciary, said that it’s not unusual for one judge to be absent from the three-judge panel, but the absence of two judges is rare. Judge Charles A. Delehey had withdrawn from the case a few days before, McAleer said; Judge Robert P. Figarotta called out sick just before the hearing.
State officials say that judges take into consideration whether the offense was violent (it wasn’t) and whether an applicant like Spicuzzo would pose a danger to the public.
Spicuzzo, 70, is legally blind and suffers from a variety of ailments. Even after he left prison, Spicuzzo, 70, will continue to suffer, his lawyer said.
“He lost his pension, so to the extent he gets the opportunity to go home to his wife, instead of enjoying a comfortable retirement as she had every right to expect, she’s going to have a husband who’s financially and physically dependent on her,” Joseph Benedict told the judge that day. “Nevertheless, she’s hopeful he’s given this opportunity.”
Spicuzzo’s family also paid $55,000 that day in a fine that was part of his sentence.
A representative for the state ISP program told the judge that the state had no objection to letting Spicuzzo in the program, and thought he would be able to follow its rules. Spicuzzo must check in frequently with the program, and his case will be re-evaluated every few months. If he does not stay out of trouble, he runs the risk of being returned to prison.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, also had no standing objection.
In 2015, the state said, 2,733 people applied for the same program Spicuzzo did. Of those, 70 percent were rejected because they were ineligible or because they couldn’t pass a screening process.
Of the 807 people who got beyond the screening committee and went before a panel of judges, 90 percent, including Spicuzzo, were released in 2015. Twenty other convicts went before McNeill that day. Of those, 16 were accepted and four were adjourned.
Spicuzzo had previously tried to get out on parole — a separate program — but was denied because a panel ruled he still blamed his crimes on others. He was not eligible to apply for parole again until fall of this year. But that did not prevent him from applying for the Intensive Supervision Program.
Among the people to support Spicuzzo’s admission into the probationary program were members of his family, including his wife and daughter. His said his parish priest, the Rev. Joseph Curry of Immaculate Conception Church in Spotswood, would be a community sponsor outside of prison.
Spicuzzo was once a looming presence in Middlesex County. A lengthy investigation in The Star-Ledger in 1997 laid out the case that he “manipulated his office into a self-serving domain.” Among the claims: He hired a family friend, who was quickly arrested for insurance fraud, but then rehired that family friend soon after.
Spicuzzo defended himself at length in 1997.
“Did I go through tough times? Yeah. Did I get into some positions that I wouldn’t want to get into? Yeah,” Spicuzzo told two Star-Ledger reporters in a remarkable six-hour interview. “I don’t think any of that has anything to do with how I run this office and how I handle the taxpayers’ money.”
At his ISP hearing in December, he spoke in a frail voice, and had only three words when the judge ordered his shackles removed.
“Thank you, judge,” Spicuzzo said.