TRENTON – In a victory for racial justice and public health, the Assembly today passed S2519/A4235 with Senate concurrence, the bill to implement public health emergency credits that will allow for the early release of people nearing the end of their sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Murphy, who has said he would sign the bill following a vote on amendments in the Senate last month.
“By passing this bill today, the Assembly has taken an important step in recognizing that no prison sentence should be a death sentence, and other mothers can be spared the heartbreak of losing a child,” said Ms. Bernice Ferguson, whose son Rory Price died of Covid-19 just weeks prior to his release date. “Had this bill been passed earlier, my son would be home today. No parent should have to endure this loss, and it’s a relief that lawmakers have taken action on our behalf. As a parent, I was forced to stop planning my son’s homecoming, and I had to plan a funeral - why? I miss my son. Please, save people’s lives.”
The ACLU-NJ, New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, 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.
“Passing this bill means I am one step closer to seeing my brother come home alive,” 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 ask that Governor Murphy take immediate action and sign this bill into law, to save lives and to spare undue grief for thousands of family members. It’s absolutely necessary to protect families like mine from facing tragic, preventable loss.”
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.
“New Jersey has signaled to the rest of the nation that saving lives from COVID-19 must transcend all perceived barriers. New Jersey has the worst Black-white racial disparity in the nation’s prisons, and this bill recognizes that everyone’s life has value, everyone has families who will grieve them, and that Black lives do matter,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “We thank Senator Pou, Senator Cunningham, and Assemblyman Mukherji, Assemblywoman Sumter, and Assemblywoman Reynolds-Jackson for their leadership in sponsoring this landmark bill, and for once again making New Jersey stand apart as a leader in reforming the criminal-legal system. We hope Governor Murphy will swiftly sign this bill into law to make sure no more lives are unnecessarily lost.”
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.
“Passing this bill today was as much a groundbreaking action for saving lives as an essential commitment to racial justice,” 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 two shameful national distinctions: having the worst Black-white disparity in its prisons and having the highest rate of death from COVID-19 in its prisons. It’s clear that our state’s pandemic relief should be equally informed by public health experts and racial justice advocates. As we continue our emergency response to this deadly virus, more must be done to end the preventable loss of Black and Latinx lives.”
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.
“This bill will save lives of those coming home, and it will save lives of people who live and work in prisons by making social distancing possible within prison walls,” said Amos Caley, Organizer of New Jersey Prison Justice Watch. “We must make sure that this is the first step of many on our path to undoing the inhumane and racially unjust tragedy of mass incarceration in the Garden State. Governor Murphy can make New Jersey a national leader on the intersection of pandemic response and racial justice by signing this bill into law, and we urge him to do just that.”