A total of 852 prisoners were granted early release as part of the “Public Health Emergency Credits” law enacted in October 2020. Under the law, credits are awarded to certain inmates and parolees during a public health emergency.
Specifically, the credits are awarded to inmates who are within 365 days of their scheduled release, and they’re accrued at “the rate of 122 days (four months) for each month, or portion of each month, served during the declared emergency with a maximum of 244 days (eight months) of remission to be awarded for any declared emergency period.”
The legislation contains certain provisions, including one that states that inmates or parolees aren’t allowed to contact their victims upon their release. It also doesn’t apply to inmates who have been convicted of sex crimes or violent crimes such as murder.
More than 5,300 inmates were released early under the program in 2020 and 2021, according to the New Jersey Monitor.
The latest release brings the total number of inmates reentering society to more than 6,200. On Feb. 10, the state Department of Corrections released 262 inmates.
An analysis by Gothamist found that among the roughly 2,500 individuals released under the program in late 2020, 9 percent had reoffended and were thus reincarcerated. That figure is lower than the state’s 16 percent overall pre-pandemic recidivism rate, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice group based in New York.
Murphy, a Democrat, has said that the law was needed to help reduce the prison population and combat COVID-19, which severely affected the state prison system during the pandemic.
The law has won the support of some Democrats, including former Gov. Jim McGreevey, and criminal justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), which said the law, at its heart is “not a pandemic policy, it’s a policy about humanity.”
“This law has shown the urgency of decarceration, and it provides a model for how we can begin to do it on a larger scale while preserving public health and public safety,” the ACLU-NJ stated.
But critics have pointed to the fact that the Murphy administration is using a law signed in response to the pandemic, despite the fact that the governor lifted his COVID-19 emergency order last week (pdf).
William Lanoza, president of the N.J. Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, said in a statement last week that COVID-19 is “practically non-existent” within the state’s prisons and jails, “as an average of less than one out of the Department’s over seven thousand permanent and contract employees test positive daily for the virus.”
“As a result of these statistics I have no choice but to question if the release of these prisoners is COVID-19 related or simply part of a plan to reduce New Jersey’s prison population to close more state prisons,” he said. “The governor’s actions are not making New Jersey’s streets, towns, and cities any safer. In fact, the murder rate in New Jersey climbed twenty-three percent in 2021 reaching the highest it has been since 2016.”
Two newly elected legislators, Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner, urged the governor to suspend the program.
“The health emergency is over, so it doesn’t make sense to continue releasing prisoners early,” Piperno said. “This entire program was supposed to limit the spread of COVID, but it failed and crime has skyrocketed the past two years.”
Eulner echoed Piperno’s comments, noting that “not everyone is fit to rejoin society.”
According to a Rutgers study, many of the prisoners released under the program suffer from drug abuse and mental health issues, which put them at high risk of overdosing or other adverse reactions.
“Ensuring a safe transition from prison to the community for these individuals is critical but is potentially complicated during large-scale releases such as New Jersey’s, which may overburden reentry service providers,” the study reads.
A spokesperson for Murphy didn’t respond by press time to a request for comment.