TRENTON – After weeks of heartbreaking testimony, a bill to create a public health emergency credit that releases people nearing the end of their sentences during the Covid-19 pandemic took another step forward today. Both the full New Jersey Senate and Assembly approved floor amendments that gained necessary support for the measure while preserving all of the essential elements promoted by advocates. The next step is a floor vote to pass the bill as amended, which Governor Murphy would have 45 days from today to sign into law.
“Making this bill law will save the lives of so many, and it will save other families from living through the nightmare I’ve experienced after losing Rory, my firstborn child, three weeks before he was supposed to come home. To protect all of the people in New Jersey, and to do justice, I urge Governor Murphy to sign this bill as quickly as possible, and I thank the lawmakers who honored his memory with this vote today,” 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 strongly advocated for 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 policy 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, civil servants, and their families, in addition to those serving sentences.
“We’re closer to passing legislation that can save my brother’s life, and it can save the lives of countless others – both people who are incarcerated, and people who are not," 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 hope Governor Murphy will sign this bill into law with a sense of urgency, recognizing that each day that goes by puts even more lives at risk.”
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 New Jersey has held since tracking of coronavirus in prisons began.
“Approving these amendments and sending this bill to a full floor vote is a key moment in our fight against this deadly virus and our fight for racial justice,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “Thank you to Senator Pou, Senator Cunningham, and Assemblyman Mukherji, Assemblywoman Sumter, and Assemblywoman Reynolds-Jackson, for your leadership in sponsoring such an important piece of legislation. It’s now time for the Legislature to vote on the bill as amended, and for Governor Murphy to sign the bill with the urgency our present reality demands.”
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.
“With this step, the Legislature takes an important action not just in the name of public health, but also in the name of racial justice, and we urge the Legislature to pass the final version and Governor Murphy to make it law,” said the Reverend Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice and pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. “New Jersey has the highest Covid-19 death rates in its prisons, as well as the highest rate of racial disparities among its prison population. Passing and signing this bill would push back against a deadly virus that has disproportionately affected Black and brown New Jerseyans. We all stand to benefit from the bill’s lifesaving protections and for advancing racial justice.”
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.
“It has been clear since the Covid-19 pandemic began that the only way we could save as many lives as possible was to drastically reduce New Jersey’s prison population as quickly and safely as possible – and, with these amendments going forward, we’re one step closer to passing a bill to begin to do exactly that,” said Amos Caley, Organizer with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. “Lawmakers who voted for amending this bill have indicated that they want to take action, and we hope the Governor has the opportunity to follow.”
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.