TRENTON – The New Jersey Senate voted yes to S2519, the bill to implement public health emergency credits. The legislation will release people nearing the end of their sentences during the Covid-19 pandemic. We await the Assembly’s vote on its version of the bill, A4235.

“This bill could save the lives of so many, inside of prison and out. I thank the Senate for passing it, and I urge the Assembly, with all of my heart, to pass this bill as quickly as possible. I lost my wonderful son Rory just weeks before he was going to come home, and I don’t want anyone to experience a loss like mine. We must do everything in our power to stop any further preventable losses from this deadly virus,” said Ms. Bernice Ferguson, whose son Rory Price died of Covid-19 just weeks prior to his release date.

The ACLU-NJ, New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, Salvation and Social Justice, 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. The law aims to save lives twofold: by allowing people to socially distance outside of prisons, and by creating greater opportunity for social distancing within prison, helping staff and their families, in addition to those serving sentences.

“With the Senate voting yes to this bill, we’re one step closer to saving thousands of lives, including my brother Brian’s. I urge the Assembly to pass this bill quickly, because every day counts,” said Mr. Scott Clements, whose brother, due to be released in early 2021, suffers from health conditions that place him at high risk while incarcerated. “I don’t want to lose my older brother, and I don’t want my mother to bury her child. This legislation isn’t just about protecting people who are serving in prison – it’s also about protecting the people who work there, all of the professionals who go in and out every day, and all of their families. So, in a sense, it’s everyone.  The people who will be released are about to come home soon, regardless. This bill would lessen the chance of people dying before they get out, and protect the health of those who live and work in corrections facilities by making social distancing more attainable.”

People who are incarcerated in New Jersey prisons and jails have died from COVID-19 at a higher rate than any other prison system in the country, a concerning status that the Garden State has held since tracking of coronavirus in prisons began. New Jersey lags behind many other states in reducing the prison population as a matter of public health, and it has the worst Black-white racial disparities in its prison population in the United States.

“The Senate has taken a critical step to further our fight against Covid-19 by passing this bill, which serves as a life-saving model that advances human rights and racial justice,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “The ACLU-NJ is grateful for the leadership of Senator Pou, who has championed this bill, and Senator Cunningham and Senate President Steve Sweeney for their strong advocacy for for this pivotal piece of legislation. All eyes turn to the NJ Assembly to pass the companion bill A4235, and to vote to safeguard public health and public safety for all New Jerseyans. We thank Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and so many more for all of the work thus far that has gotten us closer to saving lives. The fight for justice continues!”

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.

“It’s clear that New Jersey must value the lives of those both inside and outside of prison walls, and the vote in the Senate did just that. It is imperative that the Assembly pass this bill with the urgency this deadly virus demands – because as each day passes, more lives are put at risk, especially those of Black and brown New Jerseyans,” said the Reverend Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice and pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. 

The credits serve a dual purpose: allowing people to distance themselves socially at home, where social distancing is possible, and lowering the prison population to allow for more social distance among those who are still there. The credits also recognize that conditions of confinement during public health emergencies create significantly more hardship than typical incarceration, with increased isolation, fear, risk of death, and helplessness.

“We’ve known since the pandemic began that an essential component to saving lives would be to drastically reduce the prison population, and by voting yes to this bill, the Senate is paving the way to do so,” said Amos Caley, Organizer with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. “We have the opportunity to protect countless New Jerseyans from COVID-19 by sending this bill to Governor Murphy’s desk, and we implore the Assembly to pass this bill and save lives.”