New Jersey lawmakers seemed close to supporting legislation on Thursday that could free more than 3,000 prisoners — about 20 percent of the state’s prison population — months before their release dates in response to the extraordinary threat posed by the coronavirus in tightly packed correctional facilities.
Inmates who are within a year of completing their state prison 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 first legislative initiative of its kind in the United States, would not permit the release of most sex offenders, but would apply to inmates sentenced for other violent crimes, including murder.
“There are people who were sentenced to long prison terms, but they weren’t sentenced to die in prison,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, one of the groups urging passage of the legislation.
The proposal comes amid nationwide 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 United States are now linked to correctional facilities.
New Jersey’s prison death rate is the highest in the nation, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
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 by 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 its county jails after a legal challenge. But those releases have occurred largely on a case-by-case basis and did not involve legislative action.
Rory Price Jr., a 39-year-old inmate who was serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for drug and weapons convictions, was weeks away from being released from a prison halfway house when he developed a deep cough that sapped the color from his face.
“He was, like, gray,” said Art Devlin, 55, who shared a dormitory room with Mr. Price for a year at the house in Bridgeton, N.J. “He started with the coughing, the hacking. I told them, ‘This guy’s sick.’”
But Mr. Price continued to work in the kitchen, sleep in a 12-man dormitory and dream of the party his family was planning when he was freed in May, Mr. Devlin said.
He never got home. Mr. Price died May 1 of the coronavirus in a Vineland, N.J., hospital 21 days before his release date.
“It has been a living nightmare,” said his mother, Bernice Ferguson, 54. “He was doing his time. He did not go there for a death sentence.”
At least 48 other prison inmates in New Jersey have died from the virus.
If approved, the bill could free more than 3,000 inmates — about one-fifth of the 16,704 people serving state criminal sentences in New Jersey.
The bill earned unanimous bipartisan support during a Senate committee hearing, and has won backing from key lawmakers, leaving supporters hopeful it will be approved on Thursday.
“It goes beyond party politics,” Mr. Sinha said. “Wanting to see people survive is not partisan. This is a clear matter of public health.”
A spokesman for Gov. Philip D. Murphy would not comment on whether he would sign the bill if it passes, noting that key details were still being negotiated. A spokesman for the state attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, who oversees the state police and county prosecutors, also said he would not comment on pending legislation.
Senator Gerald Cardinale, a Republican who represents parts of Bergen and Passaic Counties and describes himself as a law-and-order conservative, said his support for the legislation stemmed from “basic, simple justice.”
He said the state Department of Corrections had failed to keep inmates in its custody safe.
“We are not doing very well at all in terms of protecting people,” said Mr. Cardinale, who voted to approve the bill in a Senate committee. “They’re prisoners, but they are human beings.”
Since March, 2,892 inmates — about 17 percent of the population — and 781 employees have tested positive for the virus at New Jersey correctional facilities. In addition to the 49 inmates who have died, several employee deaths have been linked to Covid-19.
At one point since March, there were 800 active cases of Covid-19 in state correctional facilities. Prisons have since successfully slowed the spread. The state has begun its second phase of universal testing, and there are now fewer than 30 coronavirus cases linked to state correctional facilities, according to the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Marcus O. Hicks.
Still, employees continue to pose a risk of importing new cases of the virus, and social distancing in crowded facilities remains virtually impossible.
Scott Clements said he feared that his brother Brian, who has diabetes and heart disease and will be 59 next week, may not make it until his February release date.
Brian Clements is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence at South Woods State Prison for his role in a fatal car accident, but does not fall into any of the four categories eligible to apply for release under the governor’s April executive order. The order permits inmates who have designated high-risk health conditions, are older than 60, are within three months of the end of their sentences or have been denied parole in the last year to seek release.
“If he was to contract the virus, it’s going to be as close to a death sentence as anyone could imagine,” said Scott Clements, 48. “I want to bring my brother home in my Toyota Camry, not in a hearse.”
Nicole D. Porter, the director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform and the elimination of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, said that while the proposal is a step it the right direction, it is still not enough.
“Every day is urgent for somebody in prison,’’ Ms. Porter said. “It’s just now the entire world is going through an urgent experience together.”
A Republican who voted against the bill in an Assembly committee, Christopher P. DePhillips, said he was sympathetic to the significant challenges facing prisoners in the middle of a pandemic.
But, Mr. DePhillips said, he was concerned about allowing the early release of violent offenders, and would have preferred for the Legislature to have had a role in devising ways to keep inmates safe — before being asked to free them. He said he was waiting to see if the bill is amended before Thursday’s vote before he makes a final decision about whether or not to support it.
Mr. Devlin, however, said it was impossible to remain apart in the prison housing units, where masks were not regularly worn. Officials from the halfway house, run by the Kintock Group, did not return calls.
“I was scared for my life — absolutely scared for my life,” said Mr. Devlin, who completed his sentence in late May but still worries about those left behind. “Now I’m scared for their lives.”
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