Gov. Murphy signs N.J. prison reform bills; wants to sign more

As Gov. Phil Murphy signs bills aimed at reforming prisons, he’s calling on the legislature to consider the rest of the recommendations from a commission.

The interior of a New Jersey prison

A New Jersey prison is pictured in a file photo. (NJ Spotlight)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed four pieces of legislation aimed at reforming prison policies Monday night. Three bills focused on sentencing and one focused on how prisoners are treated during public health emergencies.

Under Senate Bill 2519, incarcerated people would be awarded public health emergency credits, which can shave time off their sentences, if they are within a year of their scheduled release date. People behind bars for murder, aggravated sexual assault, or deemed “a repetitive, compulsive sex offender” would not qualify.

The law is expected to result in “a dramatic reduction” in the state’s prison population, according to Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

“[It] will really help us in managing the COVID crisis which has been ravaging prisons and jails around the country,” he said, adding that the bill is “a national model” for how to safely reduce prison and jail populations.

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At one point, New Jersey had the highest prison death rate from the coronavirus in the country.

The three new laws that focus on sentencing add a defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor for a judge to consider at sentencing, replace New Jersey’s tough medical parole statute with “compassionate release” and order a study on the fiscal impact of “compassionate release” and possible reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

The laws codify some of the recommendations from the bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which were issued last year. Ending mandatory minimum sentences was among the recommendations announced last year by Gov. Murphy.

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken), one of the primary sponsors of the bill that called for the study, said they will be watching closely how the reforms are implemented.

“We want to make sure that we’re making the right choices and that we follow up on our intent of different bills,” she said. “We don’t want to say ‘umm, it sounds nice,’ … if we don’t pay attention to what the consequences are to our bills, then we’re gonna have more work.”

The study is to be reported to the governor and legislature annually. Any cost savings realized through the reforms are required to be put in the newly created Corrections Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention Fund to fund reentry programs for people leaving prison.

Shalom with the ACLU of New Jersey said the bills are “very important and only a first step.”

“We say thank you to the Legislature for passing the bills they have passed, ‘cause they’re important and they’re going to make a real difference,” he said. “We say thank you to Gov. Murphy for signing the bills he signed [Monday] because they’re important.

But Shalom signals “we don’t rest on our laurels.”

“Let’s not leave well enough alone. Let’s continue to improve our criminal legal system,” he said.

Gov. Murphy also urged the Legislature to pass the rest of the commission’s bill package.

“It is imperative that we also enact existing legislation that implements the recommendations of [the commission] to eliminate certain mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment for offenses specified by the commission,” Murphy said in a press release, which also called for the reforms to be retroactively applied and for the resentencing of some incarcerated people.

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