TRENTON — A number of states, including New Jersey, have released some prison inmates to reduce crowding in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus, but the Garden State on Thursday could be the first to pass a bill providing emergency health credits to give thousands an early release.

A bill – S2519/A4235 – up for a vote in the Assembly would take eight months off the sentence of most inmates once they have 12 months left on their sentence, for the rest of the public health emergency. It is believed it would apply to 2,500 to 3,000 inmates.

The bill was amended this week to exclude people serving sentences for murder or aggravated sexual assault. The Murphy administration told activists supporting the bill that excludes around 70 inmates.

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New Jersey’s prisons still have had registered more deaths than New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania combined, said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

“As we grapple with the unpredictability of this virus, we know that a second wave could be utterly devastating for people in prisons,” Sinha said.

“Prison is a large indoor gathering with thousands of people that lasts for decades. Prisons were not designed with social distancing in mind. They were designed to warehouse people in cramped circumstances,” he said. “It’s a matter of public safety and a matter of public health. And it’s a matter of life and death.”

Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said in Sept. 10 testimony to the Legislature that 51 inmates who tested positive for coronavirus died. The Rev. Amos Caley said NJ Prison Justice Watch believes at least 14 additional deaths which have not been reported are due to COVID in prisons.

The Rev. Charles Boyer, founder and director of Salvation and Social Justice, said the people who would be released are due to get out soon, anyway. He thanked the bill’s sponsors “for actually legislating like Black lives matter and not just tweeting it.”

“By Jesus’ and (Nelson) Mandela’s standard, any sober judgement on the way New Jersey treats its most vulnerable leaves us no choice but to see New Jersey for what it is – a racist morally bankrupt and devoid-of-any-value-for-human-life state,” Boyer said.

The sponsors include Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, who called the bill “a matter of life, death and justice.”

“We are most likely between two peaks of viral infection, right as we head into flu season,” Mukherji said. “And the way to head off a second wave of COVID-19 and avoid and prevent more deaths is to reduce our prison population. There’s just no way around that.”

“If we don’t act now as policy makers, we will continue to have blood on our hands,” he said.

Marshall “Justice” Rountree of NJ Prison Justice Watch said COVID-19 has devastated inmates “physically, mentally and emotionally.” He said the bill is a lifeline for inmates and their families and that the stalling has been traumatic.

“We should not have to be convincing people that other human beings deserve to live,” Rountree said.

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COVID infections were rampant in the prisons in the spring. Testing didn’t begin until early April, and that first phase of testing through July 26 found cases among 933 employees and 2,892 inmates.

In two phases of testing since July 27, less than 1% of tests have come back positive – including 81 employees and 127 inmates. But the bill’s supporters say its passage remains as important as ever.

“Just because a problem has seemed to lessen in severity doesn’t mean that we don’t take action right now. We have the ability to prevent future deaths,” Sinha said.

“It is important for us to do what is right, not just when the immediate loss of life is happening right in front of our faces,” Boyer said. “But if we are to be a just state, then we do what is right as far as possible before there is a crisis in order to mitigate what the crisis brings to us. And so that makes it extremely critical, just as critical today as it was in May.”

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