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Bill Moves Unanimously Out of Senate Committee to Release People Nearing the End of Sentences During Covid-19 Pandemic

July 23, 2020

After hearing testimony, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously advanced legislation out of committee to save thousands of lives by speeding up release of people nearing the end of their prison sentences. The bill now heads to the floor of the Senate and Assembly.

“Lawmakers have the opportunity to save countless lives by implementing public health emergency credits, and to prevent other families from going through the heartbreak I’ve experienced by losing my son. It’s too late for him, but it is decidedly not too late for thousands of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, and the Legislature must pass this bill as quickly as possible,” 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, and Salvation and Social Justice urged passage of S2519/A4235, introduced by Senator Nellie Pou and Senator Sandra Cunningham in the Senate, and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji in the Assembly, to save lives twofold: by allowing people to social distance outside of prisons, and by creating greater opportunity for social distancing within prison, helping staff in addition to those serving sentences.

“No prison sentence should be a death sentence, but that nightmare is becoming reality, and I fear for my brother’s life every day," 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. "This bill will save my brother’s life, and I know there are countless New Jerseyans who could say the same. We must pass this legislation for them.”

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 status it has held since tracking of coronavirus in prisons began.

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 left to serve, with an exception for a subset of those convicted of sex crimes and receiving treatment for compulsive and repetitive behavior.

“The only way to protect as many lives as we can is to drastically reduce the prison population as quickly as possible, and the lawmakers who voted unanimously to send this bill to the floor have taken an important step toward that important goal,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “We call on all lawmakers to vote to save lives by passing this bill on the floor, and we call on Gov. Murphy to sign quickly to stop more unnecessary deaths in prison from unchecked Covi-19. New Jersey still has the highest death rate in its prisons from Covid-19 in the entire country – a fact that hasn’t changed since the pandemic began, and a fact lawmakers have the power to change by putting in place public health emergency credits. We urge them to act.”

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.

“Not only does New Jersey have the highest Covid-19 death rates in its prisons, but it also has the highest rate of racial disparities among its prison population. As Covid-19 continues to spread exponentially among those who are incarcerated, it’s clear the virus is disproportionately affecting 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. “We must do everything in our power to save the lives of those who are incarcerated, the prison staff, and the communities they return home to. Passing this bill will begin to put in place protections that will benefit us all.”

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.

“As we find ourselves at the intersection of public health and racial justice, lawmakers have the chance to act on both, saving countless lives in the process,” said Amos Caley, Organizer with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. “By enabling the release of those in prison who are imminently expected to complete their sentences, New Jersey would be taking a step toward a reality rooted in fairness.”

The bill was released from Senate Commerce Committee on July 23, 2020, and is now poised for a full floor vote in the Assembly and Senate.

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