Gov. Murphy signed into law S2519/A4235, which lets people nearing end of prison sentences go home months early

TRENTON – In a victory for racial justice and public health, Gov. Murphy on Oct. 19 signed into law S2519/A4235, championed by Senator Nellie Pou and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, to save lives from the COVID-19 pandemic. The law, which is the first of its kind in the United States, implements public health emergency credits that will allow for the early release of incarcerated people nearing the end of their sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy sets a standard for other states as infections rate climb nationally, especially in prisons, which are known as Petri dishes for viral spread.

“This law unfortunately comes too late to save my son Rory, who died of COVID-19 just weeks before he was to come home – but, thankfully, it can save other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and countless loved ones the heartbreak I have been through from knowing my child’s death could have been prevented. I thank the Legislature and Gov. Murphy for paying tribute to my beautiful son’s life by making sure fewer lives are lost to this virus,” said Bernice Ferguson, whose son Rory Price died of COVID-19 in March.

The ACLU-NJ, New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, Salvation and Social Justice, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, AFSC Prison Watch, and over 100 advocacy groups and religious congregations supported the passage of S2519/A4235, introduced by Senator Nellie Pou and Senator Sandra Cunningham in the Senate, and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson in the Assembly.

“Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve known that if my brother contracted the illness, he would not be coming home, and nothing else in his seven-and-a-half-year sentence has come close to the terror of these final few months – terror that incarcerated people and corrections employees have shared. Now, thankfully, Gov. Murphy and the Legislature have recognized that, whether our loved ones are coming home from a day of work or from a seven-year sentence, no one deserves to die a preventable death,” said Scott Clements, brother of Brian Clements, who was scheduled for release in February 2021, and who has multiple health conditions that would make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The law goes into effect Nov. 4, and, on that day, will result in the early release of more than 2,000 people who were due to be released within the next eight months; another 1,000 people stand to be released in the coming months. The releases will bring about significant reductions in New Jersey’s overall prison population: the total daily population will drop by 13 percent on the law’s effective date. By January, New Jersey expects to realize an estimated 19 percent drop in its overall prison population.

“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 deaths from COVID-19 in prison were preventable – and, fortunately, with the signing of this bill into law, New Jersey has taken steps to prevent more unnecessary deaths. This law serves as a roadmap for the rest of the nation to avoid the devastation we have seen here,”said Amol Sinha, Executive Director, ACLU of New Jersey.

The Senate and Assembly approved the final legislation on September 24, 2020. New Jersey has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country, along with the country’s highest Black-white disparity in incarceration rates, amounting to a racial justice and human rights crisis.

“More than any hashtag or protest sign, the signing of this bill into law shows the reality that Black lives matter. New Jersey’s worst-in-the-country disparities in Black and white imprisonment collided with our worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 death rate in prison, resulting in an unprecedented crisis of racial injustice and indifference to Black lives – a crisis that now, thanks to the Legislature and Gov. Murphy, can begin to recede,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice.

The credits will reduce sentences, including minimum sentences, by four months for each month of the declared state of emergency, with a maximum sentence reduction of eight months. The legislation will apply to adults and juveniles with under a year of a sentence left to serve, with an exception for a subset of those convicted of sex crimes and receiving treatment for compulsive and repetitive behavior, as well as those convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault.

“The signing of this law is an important moment for social and racial justice, not just in New Jersey, but in the country, and we hope this law is only the first of many measures to protect the lives of people who live and work in our prisons, along with their loved ones,” said J. Amos Caley, Organizer with New Jersey Prison Justice Watch. “In New Jersey, which has the country’s highest COVID-19 death rate in prisons, we have seen the pain of needless deaths, and we urge lawmakers here and throughout the country to learn from these tragedies to prevent additional ones,” said Amos Caley, Organizer, New Jersey Prison Justice Watch.

“We have already seen outbreaks of COVID-19 in New Jersey’s prisons, including youth prisons. Being exposed to a deadly virus is not part of anyone’s sentence, and adequate social distancing is impossible in prison facilities. The new law takes a meaningful step toward eliminating that threat for some of New Jersey’s incarcerated people, including youth,” said Retha Onitiri, Director of Community Engagement, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“The signing of this life-saving legislation was born out of coalition work with survivors, family members, formerly imprisoned people, organizations and advocates. In this pandemic, every sentence is a potential death sentence. We need to bring as many people home as possible, and this is one step is the right direction.  We hope other states will look at what New Jersey is doing and take similar actions to decarcerate their prisons and jails,” said Bonnie Kerness, Program Director, AFSC Prison Watch.

“Signing this bill into law comes as the culmination of a principled struggle to convince those of us in power to uphold our most fundamental responsibilities: advancing our public health, responding to the needs of the most vulnerable among us, and, above all, saving lives. New Jersey makes history by becoming the first state to use our powers of democracy to slow the devastation of COVID-19 in our prisons, which have the nation’s highest Black-white disparity and highest COVID-19 death rate. We must make sure New Jersey is only the first state to enact such basic measures to save lives and to treat people with the humanity and justice we all deserve,” said Senator Nellie Pou, legislative champion of the bill in the Senate.

“Only a rare few bills are signed into law with a promise that they will save lives,” said Assemblyman and Judiciary Committee Chairman Raj Mukherji, who authored the bill in the Assembly. “The public health emergency credits law will save lives, both inside our prisons and out, and New Jersey should be proud of its moral leadership in stemming a pandemic and treating all people with the humanity they deserve. When you’re dealing with a virus whose ability to spread depends on our inability to social distance and quarantine, our prisons are just not equipped to handle it, and we have failed our inmates, correctional officers, and DOC medical staff. Our work continues, both to stem the crisis of COVID-19 and to end the injustices and racial inequities of mass incarceration, but this law stands as a solid foundation for building a healthier, fairer, more just New Jersey.”