The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
The state will release another 852 inmates Sunday as part of a pandemic-era program to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, the Department of Corrections announced Thursday, bringing the total number of people released under the program to more than 6,000.
The releases are allowed under a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in 2020. It allows individuals convicted of most crimes — with serious offenses like sexual assault and murder excluded — to cut a maximum of 122 days off their sentences for each month they were incarcerated during the public health emergency.
More than 5,300 inmates were released early under the program in 2020 and 2021. There was a pause in releases after the state’s initial public health emergency lapsed in June 2021.
Eligible inmates began to earn credits again when Murphy issued a new public health emergency in January, an action he took after legislators refused to advance a resolution that would have extended some of Murphy’s pandemic-related powers. That emergency ended Monday.
The early releases have drawn mixed responses, winning plaudits from advocates and scorn from Republican lawmakers and corrections unions.
The New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, which represents police sergeants employed by the Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Justice Commission, said low rates of COVID-19 transmission in the state’s correctional facilities belied the need for the releases.
“The governor’s actions are not making New Jersey’s streets, towns, and cities any safer,” William Lanoza, the union’s president, said in a statement Wednesday. “In fact, the murder rate in New Jersey climbed 23% in 2021, reaching the highest it has been since 2016. The vast majority of inmates that are being released under this legislation are being bussed to our state’s urban centers and thereafter left to themselves.”
Individuals released after earning public health emergency credits have access to some re-entry services, including assistance in obtaining health care, identification documents, and some financial aid.
The New Jersey Reentry Corporation will also provide temporary housing to homeless persons released on Sunday, along with medication-assisted drug treatment services, and job training, former Gov. Jim McGreevey said.
Recidivism among the roughly 2,500 individuals released under the program in 2020 was just 9%, nearly half of the state’s 16% pre-pandemic recidivism rate, an analysis by Gothamist found. Murphy’s Republican critics have focused on a few serious reoffenders. In 2021, three people granted early release were subsequently accused of murder.
Collectively, the early releases have reduced the state’s prison population by more than 40%. This comes as union officials warn state prisons could face a staff exodus over opposition to a vaccine mandate for its workers.
To advocates, the releases are a good sign. Yannick Wood, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s criminal justice program, called the new round of releases a significant and encouraging development, but added he’d like to see the state step up its investment in early intervention and rehabilitation services.
“The answer cannot be just to lock people up because that’s not sustainable and it doesn’t truly rehabilitate people,” Wood said. “You can’t lock people up forever. Eventually, people are going to be released, and if they’re not rehabilitated and they’re not receiving the programming, then that’s going to not be the safest situation for everyone.”
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