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NJ’s COVID-19 prison release program restarts Thursday with 260 freed early

New Jersey’s pandemic-related early release program will officially resume Thursday with the freeing of another 260 individuals, the Department of Corrections confirmed to Gothamist.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed landmark legislation that created the program in 2020 — allowing prisoners to shave up to eight months off their sentences — when the state’s prisons had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

The law allows prisoners within a year of their release date to accrue “public health credits,” similar to earned time off, but only during a public health emergency that affects facility operations. So when Murphy re-declared a public health emergency last month due to the omicron variant surge, corrections officials reinstated the program.

Corrections spokesperson Liz Velez said the department will ensure “a seamless reentry process” for those released, including arranging transportation for people with mobility issues.

“Balancing public health and public safety, individuals are COVID tested before release and provided a ‘COVID Kit’ with essentials such as sanitizer and masks,” Velez said in an email.

More than 5,300 incarcerated individuals were freed early between 2020-21, but those releases stopped last October after Murphy first lifted the public health emergency amid declining COVID case rates. The first 11 months of the program cut the prison population by 40% to about 10,800 incarcerated people — levels not seen since the 1980s.

A Gothamist analysis of public records show the first wave of people released in 2020 had a re-incarceration rate of 9% — significantly lower than New Jersey’s overall pre-pandemic, one-year recidivism rate of 16%, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice group based in New York.

Alex Shalom, senior managing attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey, said the first wave of people being released on Thursday are getting out up to four months earlier than their initial release date.

Prisoners who are within a year of release and have not been convicted of murder, first-degree sexual assault, or are not repeat sexual offenders are eligible to earn four months off their sentence for every month or part of the month they serve during a public health emergency. Shalom expects another 900 individuals to accrue the maximum eight months off and be freed in March.

Re-entry advocates say the state has improved its services and coordination with local groups since the first group of 2,200 prisoners was released in November 2020 — in some cases with nowhere to go and no valid state identification.

Velez said the department will help individuals obtain identification documents, healthcare, a two-week supply of prescription medication (with a 90-day prescription for additional medication), and transportation home for those who need it.

The department also created a hotline — 609-826-5671 — to help answer questions from those recently released. Any family members with questions can call each facility for more information.

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