But even the Attorney General's Office did not know the full extent of the problem until recently.
Yesterday, Pete McDonough, a spokesman for Gov. Whitman, said the backlog had reached a peak of 3,409 cases. Since July 10, McDonough said, about 4,200 additional files have been reviewed by the Attorney General's Office and, as a result, 195 additional inmates were found to be eligible for parole hearings.
In addition, hundreds more inmates continued to become eligible for parole, he said.
McDonough said the administration hoped to settle the suit by promising to eliminate the backlog in eight months.
But the numbers suggest that may not be possible.
Parole board members have been handling an average of 100 cases per week in an effort to reduce the backlog, according to McDonough and Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.
"They are working full tilt," McDonough said.
McDonough said the backlog now stands at about 2,700, putting the board roughly where it thought it was six weeks ago despite an intense effort to reduce the backlog.
Kenneth Connelly, acting executive director of the New Jersey State Parole Board, declined to comment, referring all questions to the Attorney General's Office.
Loriquet declined to discuss the Riverfront suit, except to say that the state's attorneys believe that the parole board can eliminate the backlog in eight months.
Haddonfield attorneys Philip S. Fuoco and Joseph Osefchen, who filed the class-action suit on the prisoners' behalf, were not available for comment yesterday. A message on their answering machine said the office was being swamped with calls about the parole board backlog and informed callers that the office was negotiating a settlement with the state.
Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., said he suspects New Jersey may have the largest backlog of any state in the nation.
"It seems way out of line, given the evidence we have heard from other states," Mauer said.
Pennsylvania does not have any backlog, said Vicki Wilken, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. Wilken said the Pennsylvania board holds hearings three weeks before inmates are eligible.
Mauer said such a large backlog was bad for inmates, who could lose incentive to participate in rehabilitation programs that could lead to early parole, and for taxpayers, who are footing the bill for overcrowded prisons.
New Jersey prisons, which house about 30,000 inmates, are operating at 140 percent of capacity. It costs about $20,000 per year to house a prisoner.
"The cost to the taxpayers can be very substantial when the numbers are this high," Mauer said.
The huge backlog of parole cases, along with an ongoing criminal investigation of the parole board, has shaken the agency in recent weeks. Andrew Consovoy has resigned as parole board chairman, and Robert Egles, the board's executive director, has taken a medical leave. A third member, Peter Loos, has asked the governor not to reappoint him.
The criminal investigation involves allegations that Consovoy showed favoritism in granting parole for certain inmates. Those allegations were leveled by the union representing parole hearing officers.
Consovoy, who has since moved to Virginia, has denied the charges.
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