With changes scaling back its scope and adding notification measures, a plan to grant early prison releases to thousands of state inmates was endorsed by a legislative committee Monday.

The bill – S2519/A4235 – had stalled four weeks ago at a Senate committee meeting. But it was approved Monday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee after being amended to apply only to inmates due to be released within a year. Sex offenders aren’t eligible.

Language was also added to the bill requiring the state Department of Corrections to notify state or county prosecutors of the inmates being released. Prosecutors must notify any identified crime victims of the pending release, and courts must enter an order that the inmate not have contact with the victim, unless the victim says that such an order isn’t necessary.

The bill is being considered because of the coronavirus impacts on New Jersey’s prison system, where nearly 2,900 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 49 have died. In addition, 781 DOC staff members have tested positive.

“New Jersey has been uniquely troubled by this virus in our prisons,” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey. “Our prison death rate is the worst in the nation – the very worst in the nation. And let me be honest, it’s not close.”

“We are doing something wrong, and what we’re doing is we have not gotten people out, which would enable us to have the people who remain in social distance better,” Shalom said.

Early in the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy directed the Department of Corrections to consider granting temporary emergency home medical confinement to up to 3,000 inmates who met certain criteria. To date, 283 have been approved for release, of which 265 have been released.

Scott Clements said he hasn’t gotten an answer as to why his brother, Brian, wasn’t made eligible for medical parole consideration. He is due for release next year after serving nearly eight years for leaving the scene of a fatal DWI crash in 2012 in New Brunswick.

“Brian is scheduled to be released in February of 2021. But he and our family are terrified he will be leaving prison not in our family Toyota Camry but in a hearse,” Clements said. “Please do not let my brother’s sentence be a death sentence.”

“This bill before you would save my brother’s life and bring healing to our family and community,” he said. “Brian’s medical condition could not survive another seven months until his scheduled release in a facility that is essentially a petri dish for the coronavirus.

The committee’s four Democrats favored the bill, while its two Republicans were opposed.

“I completely agree that more should have been done by the administration to protect inmates from COVID-19, but I respectfully disagree that this bill is the correct solution,” said Assemblyman Chris DePhillips, R-Bergen.

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“At the end of the day, these inmates are getting out anyway,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukerji, D-Hudson, the bill’s lead sponsor. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that when they’re released back into the community that the community is kept safe, that we’re not exposing them unnecessarily.”

“We thought that this would be a measured approach to try to strike that balance,” he said. “We sought to ensure that public safety and public health were the foremost considerations.”

The Senate Commerce Committee is due to hear the bill Thursday.

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

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