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Coronavirus US: New Jersey may release 20% prison population

New Jersey lawmakers appear to be in favor of potentially releasing 3,000 inmates – roughly 20 per cent of the state’s prison population – in an effort to curb the disastrous impact coronavirus has had on their facilities. 

Those inmates who are currently within a year of completing their state sentences would be eligible to be released up to eight months early based on credits awarded for time served during the pandemic, the New York Times reports. 

The legislation from state lawmakers could potentially be the first legislative initiative of its kind in the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Lawmakers will be voting Thursday whether to push through legislation that would release 3,000 inmates from New Jersey prisons

It would not allow the release of most sex offenders, but would apply to those convicted for violent crimes like murder.   

‘There are people who were sentenced to long prison terms, but they weren’t sentenced to die in prison,’ said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

New Jersey currently has the highest prison death rate, according to data from the the Marshall Project and The Associated Press. 

Under an April executive order, some 338 at-risk inmates had been freed from the state’s prison system while another 700 people were released from county jails. Those releases have occurred largely on a case-by-case basis.

The bill has received unanimous bipartisan support during a Senate committee hearing, including backing from Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R) who said his support stemmed from 'basic, simple justice'

The bill has received unanimous bipartisan support during a Senate committee hearing, including backing from Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R) who said his support stemmed from ‘basic, simple justice’

Some 49 prison inmates have already died in New Jersey from the coronavirus. Some 2,892 prisoners – roughly 17 per cent of the population – and 781 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Several employee deaths have been attributed to the virus, as well.  

The bill, if approved, would free roughly one-fifth of the 16,704 people currently serving sentences in the state. 

It has received unanimous bipartisan support during a Senate committee hearing and has also gained major support by key lawmakers in the state. 

‘It goes beyond party politics,’ Mr. Sinha said. ‘Wanting to see people survive is not partisan. This is a clear matter of public health.’

A spokesman for Gov. Phillip D. Murphy wouldn't comment on whether he would sign the bill but said that the specific details would need to be negotiated out

A spokesman for Gov. Phillip D. Murphy wouldn’t comment on whether he would sign the bill but said that the specific details would need to be negotiated out

A spokesman for Gov. Phillip D. Murphy wouldn’t comment on whether he would sign the bill but said that the specific details would need to be negotiated out. 

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican representing parts of Bergen and Passaic Counties, expressed support for the bill. Describing himself as a law-and-order conservative, Cardinale said that his support stemmed from ‘basic, simple justice.’

He slammed the Department of Corrections for failing to keep inmates safe.  

‘We are not doing very well at all in terms of protecting people,’ said Mr. Cardinale. ‘They’re prisoners, but they are human beings.’  

Christopher P. DePhillips, who voted against the bill in an Assembly committee, wanted to see the bill amended before it went to a vote on Thursday

Christopher P. DePhillips, who voted against the bill in an Assembly committee, wanted to see the bill amended before it went to a vote on Thursday

Prisons in New Jersey have worked to curb the virus, with there now being fewer than 30 coronavirus cases linked to state correctional facilities, according to the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Marcus O. Hicks. 

The facilities still struggle as social distancing is practically impossible and with the ever present risk of employees bringing in the virus. 

Nicole D. Porter, a director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, said that the proposal was still not enough.   

‘What the United States has done pales in comparison to other countries,’ she said, pointing to the release of 85,000 prisoners in Iran and 30,000 in Indonesia.

‘Every day is urgent for somebody in prison,’ Ms. Porter said. ‘It’s just now the entire world is going through an urgent experience together.’

Christopher P. DePhillips, who voted against the bill in an Assembly committee, said he was sympathetic to the challenges faced by prisoners but expressed concern about the release of violent offenders. 

He wanted to see the bill amended before Thursday vote to accommodate ways to keep the prisoners safe without releasing them.  

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk