Officials expect to reduce New Jersey’s prison population 35% since the start of the pandemic by March
On November 4, 2020, prisons in the State of New Jersey started releasing over two thousand (2,000) inmates nearing the end of their sentences as part of New Jersey’s effort to address coronavirus transmissions in crowded prison facilities. The early release of eligible prisoners is in line with Senate Bill No. 2519 (S2519) which was enacted and signed into law on October 19, 2020. The legislation provides for the grant of “public health emergency credits” to certain inmates and parolees during public health emergencies. It further prohibits contact with victims upon release of inmate awarded credits.
S2519 was enacted to ensure that the right of inmates to health and safety is protected in the time of public health emergencies such as the coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic. Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, highlighted that the “spread of Covid-19 in New Jersey’s prisons, and [our] highest-in-the-nation death rate has been a matter of public health, a matter of racial justice, and a matter of life and death.” The new legislation seeks to further prevent unnecessary deaths in the prison population.
New Jersey has initially allowed the release of inmates under the custody of the state through an executive order adopted last April in order to mitigate the increasing coronavirus transmission among inmates in the prison system. Executive Order No. 124 has allowed the release of over 1,200 eligible inmates. With Governor Phil Murphy’s signing of S2519, it is estimated that there will be a thirty-five percent (35%) decrease in the population of prisoners in the state correctional facilities of New Jersey by March 2021. The granting of public health emergency credits will allow a reduction of the term of the sentences of qualified inmates.
Eligibility for Public Health Emergency Credit
Under S2519, New Jersey prisoners will who are scheduled to be released from prison within three hundred sixty-five (365) days would be awarded public health emergency credits. This would lessen the time inmates would serve their sentence by one hundred twenty-two (122) days for every month served during the pandemic up to a maximum of two hundred forty-four (244) days of remission of their sentence. Prisoners who were convicted and are serving their sentence for murder or aggravated sexual assault, and those deemed as repetitive, compulsive sex offenders, as well as prisoners in federal prisons and county jails, are not eligible for the reduction of sentence. Eligible prisoners shall be directly notified with a proposed release date.
Prohibition on Contact with Victims
A prisoner who was able to avail of early release under S2519 is prohibited from contacting identifiable victims of the crime for which he/she was incarcerated. Victims shall also be informed by the Attorney General, at least five (5) days before the inmate’s release, that “an order will be entered prohibiting the inmate from having any contact with the victim unless the victim requests that an order not be entered.” If the prisoner purposely or knowingly violates the contact prohibition or “no contact” order, he/she shall be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree and will be sent back to prison.
Legislation on Early Release Upholds Prison System’s Health and Safety
Since April 2020, the Department of Corrections of the State of New Jersey has reported over fifty (50) coronavirus-related deaths of inmates under its custody. Senator Sandra Cunningham, one of the primary sponsors of S2519, noted that “New Jersey has the highest rate of inmate deaths due to COVID-19 in the nation, and one of the highest rates of infection among those incarcerated.” The legislation providing for the early release of eligible prisoners was intended to further support New Jersey’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic by securing the safety of inmates qualified for early release. Moreover, as pointed out by Senator Nellie Pou, one of the primary sponsors of the legislation, early release will also “thin the population inside the prisons, more easily provide for social distancing, and keep everyone, including corrections officers, safer.” Thus, S2519 protects not only the released inmate’s health and safety but the entire prison system’s well-being as well. Democrat Senators Pou and Cunningham are the primary sponsors of S2519 on the Senate Floor. In the Assembly, Democrat Assembly members Raj Mukherji, Shavonda E. Sumter, and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson are the sponsors of Assembly Bill No. A4235 which was later substituted with the Senate version.
Criticisms of the Legislation
S2519 was passed by the Senate through a vote of 21-16 on August 27, 2020, and by the Assembly, as a substitute bill for A4235, on September 24, 2020. Critics of the legislation were primarily concerned about the risk in public safety that would be posed by the mass release of prisoners. Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips, a Republican representing the 40th Legislative District, was opposed to the reduction of the sentence of prisoners expressing that it is “counterproductive to the deterrent effect of punishment.” Moreover, Senator Michael Testa, a Republican representative of Legislative District 1, has expressed concern that the law requiring eligible inmates to be released, regardless of whether or not they have been tested for COVID-19, will lead to “super-spreaders of the coronavirus all over New Jersey.”
Pandemic Release in Other States
Debates surrounding the early release of prisoners remain controversial and relevant not only in New Jersey but in other states as well. Advocacies on the early release of eligible inmates have also been undertaken in other states. In California, over eight thousand (8,000) qualified non-violent offenders have been released in order to reduce the prison population. New York has likewise initiated the early release of non-violent offenders since the end of March 2020 to minimize prison crowding. Other states have also followed suit by releasing eligible non-violent prisoners or those with low-level charges through the initiatives of the executive and the judiciary.