• May 10, 2022

New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds Law, Orders Release of Sundiata Acoli

In a striking 3-2 decision today, the New Jersey Supreme Court correctly upheld the law, granting the release of 85-year-old Sundiata Acoli after he has served more than 49 years in prison.

The N.J. Supreme Court ruled that the N.J. Parole Board unlawfully denied Mr. Acoli’s release by claiming that he was a risk to public safety, which is unsupported by the record. Mr. Acoli has shown no substantial likelihood that he will commit a crime if released, and therefore his parole had to be granted. He will be released to live with his daughter and grandchildren.

We are grateful to have represented four Black law enforcement organizations to advocate for this outcome. Read our amicus brief here.

The decision incorporates some of the reasoning advanced in our brief, as excerpted below:

The Board expressed concern that, if released, Acoli might face “charged situations regarding social justice and community activism.” But Acoli is not required to surrender views about[] “social justice” to be eligible for parole. The Board did not articulate what violent revolutionary organization it feared then-seventy-nine-year-old Acoli might join if paroled.
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In light of Acoli’s verbal renunciation of violence as an acceptable way to achieve social change; more than two decades infraction-free in the federal prison system; the multitude of programs and counseling sessions he completed; his honor status as an inmate; his acquisition of vocational skills; and his advanced age, it is difficult to imagine what else might have persuaded the Board that Acoli did not present a substantial likelihood to reoffend.

Read the full decision here.

Read a press release from the campaign and amicus coalition.

Read coverage of the decision and the amicus brief we filed:

Among those supporting Acoli’s release were the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, the Black Police Experience, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, and the Grand Council of Guardians.

In a joint brief filed in August 2021, the groups argued that due to his age and as someone serving a life sentence, Acoli had a low recidivism risk and would not be a threat to public safety. They argued that “the Parole Board abused its discretion by drifting into considerations of punishment beyond its statutory authority.”

As NewsOne reported in January, Acoli’s release was backed by several groups, including Black law enforcement organizations.

“Holistic review of the parole hearing transcript from the full June 2016 hearing suggests the Parole Board does not fear Mr. Acoli has a substantial likelihood of future criminal activity,” explained the Black law enforcement groups in a brief supporting Acoli’s appeal. “Rather, the questioning by Parole Board members reveals a deep-seated discomfort with Mr. Acoli’s political affiliations and beliefs, anger and frustration at his unwillingness to accede to the facts of the crime as found by the jury which he has always maintained he does not remember, and concern that he has not been sufficiently punished even after all these years. Dissatisfaction with an old man’s contrition and memory does not equate to credible evidence of a substantial likelihood that he will commit a crime if released.”