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November 5, 2020

New Jersey COVID-related prison releases results in single-day 15% drop of state's prison population

As detailed in this local article, headlined "'It's over, baby': NJ begins releasing inmates who survived COVID spread in prisons," there was a big reform story in New Jersey that became an especially tangible reality yesterday.  Here are some of the details:

"I'm coming out!" Lissette Cardoso shouted through a second-floor window of a beige, nondescript halfway house in Paterson.  Four family members stood on the street in the cold outside.  They'd been waiting for more than 10 years.

Cardoso walked out of the halfway house just before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, after a decade-long prison term for a string of convenience store robberies.  Her sentence ended three months early and with a kiss to her boyfriend — through their masks — amid a flood of hugs and tears.  "It's over, baby," Luz Salamanca, Cardoso's sister, said as Salamanca's daughter kissed Cardoso's cheeks.  "It's over, you hear me?"

Cardoso was one of thousands of people expected to leave state prisons and halfway houses on Wednesday under a first-in-the-nation law reducing sentences for inmates who served time during the coronavirus pandemic.  State officials said 2,261 inmates would be released throughout the day, marking a single-day drop of 15% in the state prison population.

The drastic decline was lawmakers' response to the coronavirus's devastation in New Jersey prisons.  The death rate inside Garden State prisons was the highest in the nation, according to the nonprofit criminal justice newsroom The Marshall Project....

While Gov. Phil Murphy has scored high marks with the public for his handling of the virus overall, prisons remained a trouble spot.  Murphy and his administration were criticized for moving too slowly to test the incarcerated population and reduce the number of people locked up, both efforts seen as key ways to slow the contagious virus's spread in a setting where social distancing is nearly impossible.

In fact, all but one of the 52 COVID-related deaths in state prisons were reported after Murphy in April created a framework for people to be released.  Lawmakers and prisoner advocacy groups said Murphy's plan allowed the corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, too much discretion and that more people should have gotten out.

Ultimately lawmakers put forward a bill, S2519, that reduced sentences by up to eight months for inmates who served during the public health emergency.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Policy Initiative, the effort is unique in the nation because it changed state law instead of leaving action up to the executive branch.

Only inmates who are within a year of release are eligible for time off their sentences, and those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses are not allowed to get out early. The law will also give inmates time off if there is another public health emergency.  "We now have a system in place that allows us to be prepared the next time there is an infectious disease that causes pandemonium in our prison systems," said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy for the ACLU in New Jersey. "And that puts us really far ahead.”

But the law wasn't easily passed.  It was delayed for weeks in Trenton because of concerns that the state cut funding for reentry programs just as it was about to embark on an unprecedented release effort.  Ultimately that state aid was replenished, and Murphy signed the bill into law last month, greenlighting up to 3,000 releases over the next three months. The bulk of those inmates were to get out Wednesday....

While many New Jerseyans were awaiting election results early Wednesday, an informal army of advocates, religious leaders and reentry professionals flooded transit centers, hoping to catch people as they were released.  Each inmate met with a social services worker before being released to connect them with resources, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez.  The department also gave people with a financial need a food stipend, packages of food or "an emergency supportive stipend to those who have indicated the greatest hardship," she said.

Velez said on Tuesday afternoon, the eve of the releases, that she did not have numbers of how many people had been given identification cards or enrolled in benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.  Releasing a large number of people all at once has prompted concern among some reentry groups and officials, who said the Murphy administration was not providing them enough information to identify who needs help.

November 5, 2020 at 01:17 PM | Permalink

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