New Jersey legislators may approve legislation Thursday that could free more than 3,000 prisoners — about 20 percent of the prison population — months before their release dates in response to the threat posed by the coronavirus in tightly packed correctional facilities, the New York Times reports. Inmates within a year of completing their sentences would be eligible to be released up to eight months early based on credits awarded for time served during the pandemic. The bill, which the American Civil Liberties Union believes to be the nation’s first of its kind, would not permit the release of most sex offenders, but would apply to inmates sentenced for other violent crimes, including murder.
The proposal comes amid efforts to reduce state and federal prison populations to protect inmates and employees from the virus, which continues to spread rapidly through some prisons. The five largest known clusters of the virus in the U.S. are linked to correctional facilities. New Jersey’s prison death rate is the nation’s highest. In California, the governor ordered the release of up to 8,000 nonviolent offenders by the end of August. Connecticut’s prison population has dropped 16 percent since March to the lowest levels in 29 years, in part because of coronavirus releases. New Jersey has already released 338 at-risk inmates early from its prison system under an April executive order and freed nearly 700 people from county jails after a legal challenge. Those releases have occurred largely on a case-by-case basis and did not involve legislative action.