With the number of inmates in state prisons down 3,500 since May 2018, including 2,200 during the coronavirus pandemic, and plans in the Legislature to grant early releases to thousands more, the state plans nearly $60 million in cuts in the Department of Corrections.

In testimony before the Senate budget committee, acting Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said nearly half the reduction in the past six months is due to an April executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy putting in place expedited parole and emergency medical home confinement.

“Since then, more than 1,000 individuals have benefited from the order, between the DOC and parole, with about an 85% success rate,” said Hicks, whose written testimony described it as “a 15% return rate.”

Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said legislation under consideration could speed up the release of around 3,000 more inmates, in the interest of reducing prison crowding so COVID-19 is less likely to spread. She said the DOC needs to prepare making adjustments now.

“We need to start making those kinds of plans and thoughts now, because that’s going to mean a lot as we proceed,” Cunningham said. “And I don’t know if you’re going to wait until the last minute to do what needs to be done.”

Hicks said those plans are in the budget, including $20 million in savings from shuttering the Central Reception Assignment Facility in Trenton, where intakes from county jails happen. That facility housed 556 inmates back on Jan. 1, but the state stopped taking county jail transfers during the pandemic.

“We are proposing based upon the projected population reduction, proposing to close another facility, the second facility in two fiscal years,” Hicks said. “So that plan has been thought out. It would follow the same plan that we did last year, when we consolidated Albert C. Wagner in terms of moving staff, moving inmates.”

Hicks said the state also stopped transferring inmates to halfway houses in the spring due to COVID-19 and still hasn’t restarted. On top of that, many of the inmates released to medical home confinement came from those facilities.

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Halfway houses in New Jersey have a contracted capacity of 2,400 inmates and are typically 95% full. Hicks said they currently house 1,153 – a more than 50% vacancy rate.

“And what we had been doing is that we had been paying the RCRPs for beds that we weren’t using,” Hicks said.

Now the state plans to cut halfway-house spending more than 40% in the coming year. The planned reduction of over $26 million could be reversed in future years. But Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said those services are still needed now and worries they won’t be available.

“Folks are still coming home,” Singleton said. “And if they’re still coming home, and they’ve got to get back in the community, and you’re trying to prevent the homelessness, and we’re trying to make sure folks don’t revert back to bad tendencies, by cutting this aren’t we ultimately cutting our nose off in spite of our face.”

The proposed Department of Corrections budget would roll back to its 2018 level, at just over $1 billion. Spending would drop $46.5 million from last year, but in order to also account for some increases in line items, the revised budget identifies $59 million in spending cuts.

If addition to the halfway houses and closing CRAF, the spending reductions listed include almost $3.2 million from workforce realignment; $3 million less spending on inmate healthcare, as there are fewer inmates; $2.6 million less spending on parole-related grants; $2.2 million by offsetting operational costs through funding from the U.S. Justice Department’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which covers salary costs associated with incarcerating unauthorized immigrants; $1.825 million by delaying pending opioid initiatives; and $350,000 from other parole-related savings.

Hicks told lawmakers the Governor’s Office is considering whether to authorize hazard pay for corrections officers due to the coronavirus.

“As it stands now, the department is not offering hazard pay, but it’s something that I believe is on the table and is being discussed,” he said.

More than 3,000 inmates and 1,000 employees have contracted the illness. The state now conducts a saliva-based COVID test on staff weekly and on inmates biweekly.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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