On July 30, the New Jersey state Senate voted in favor of a bill that could free about 3,000, or one in five, people incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
The bill, S2519, was passed 27-0 by the Senate, with 13 abstentions. The New Jersey Assembly has added an amedment to its version, but not yet passed the bill. It would apply to most groups of convictions, including violent crimes but not sex offenses. People within a year of completing their sentence would be awarded “public health emergency credits” for time served during the pandemic and released up to eight months early. If applicable, crime victims would be notified by the state.
The bill is backed by ACLU-NJ; nationally, the ACLU’s analysis has shown that pandemic decarceration has not increased crime.
The vote came as the nation’s carceral institutions face a catastrophic COVID-19 crisis: All of the top 10 largest coronavirus clusters in the United States are in prisons or jails.
In New Jersey, the numbers are horrendous. An analysis by The Marshall Project shows that the prison population there has a higher COVID-19 death rate than any other state. The rate is more than double the death rate for New Jersey residents in general. At least 48 incarcerated people have died in New Jersey prisons so far, as well as several prison employees.
Since March, nearly 2,900 incarcerated people in Jersey—again roughly one in five—have tested positive for coronavirus. An additional 781 prison employees have tested positive. The state has slowed active infection rates since implementing universal testing in prisons.
During this time, the state’s total prison population has fallen, from over 18,400 to over 16,600. As in many other states, this is less due to incarcerated people being released and more about fewer new people being sent to prison.
New Jersey has previously taken some small measures to release incarcerated people due to COVID-19. In April, Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed an executive order that allowed at-risk individuals in prison to be either paroled or furloughed to temporary house arrest. But only 338 people were released under this policy, and advocates including ACLU-NJ criticized the release program as “too little, too late.”
In March, the NJ Supreme Court ordered that most people being held in county jails who were healthy, considered low-risk, and charged with low-level offenses be released. That resulted in about 700 releases.
New Jersey has grotesque racial disparities in its prison and jail populations. Black, Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native people are all disproportionately incarcerated, and therefore disproportionately at risk from the virus. Black people make up over half of the incarcerated population despite comprising less then 15 percent of the state’s total population.
Time is running out to mitigate the health disaster in New Jersey’s prisons, and much more should have been done sooner. But if S2519 becomes law, it could yet save thousands of lives.