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Lifesaving Bill Would Slow Coronavirus Spread by Lowering Prison Population in NJ, Which Has Country’s Highest Death Rate from COVID-19

May 28, 2020

The ACLU-NJ, Salvation and Social Justice, and New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement strongly praised a bill intended to limit the public health crisis in New Jersey’s prisons by releasing people who would be eligible for release within a year quickly, fairly, and safely.

The bill, S2519, introduced by Senator Nellie Pou, creates a public health emergency credit expediting release for people in prisons who are due to complete their sentences within a year.

“No one deserves for a prison sentence to become a death sentence, and for people whose release dates are on the near horizon, the circumstances are especially tragic,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “A locked cell does not prevent staff and workers who come in each day from carrying the virus out when they leave, as we’ve seen with hundreds of corrections workers who have tested positive. Fast, fair, and efficient release protects people behind prison walls and beyond them.”

The credits will reduce sentences, including minimum sentences, by six months for each month of the declared state of emergency, with a maximum sentence reduction of one year. The legislation will apply to adults and juveniles, with an exception for a subset of those convicted of sex crimes and receiving treatment for compulsive and repetitive behavior.

“In New Jersey’s prisons, we’re seeing a crisis of public health, human dignity, and racial justice intensify with each day, and anyone with the power to intervene must wield it at this moment,” said the Reverend Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice and pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. “Legislators can make the difference between life and death by issuing public health emergency credits, and we call on each and every one of them to vote with their conscience to prevent more suffering.”

The credits serve a dual purpose: allowing people to quarantine themselves 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 more hardship than typical incarceration, with increased isolation, fear, and helplessness.

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.

Of nearly 3,000 people made eligible for release under Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 124, issued on April 10, only a few hundred have been released. In addition to the highest death rate of COVID-19, New Jersey lags behind many other states in reducing the prison population as a matter of public health, and has the worst Black-white racial disparities in its prison population in the United States.

“The window to act is closing, and without immediate action, grave illness and death are certain,” said Amos Caley, Organizer with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. “Saving lives and protecting public health are a cause that transcend any party or ideology. We need to do everything we can to save as many people as we can, and public health emergency credits toward release will help us get there.”

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