It’s nearly impossible to practice social distancing in the most restrictive environments we have — state prisons. COVID-19 is killing corrections officers and incarcerated people, including a New Jersey Department of Corrections officer earlier this month. The states must find a way to balance public health and public safety with carefully tailored policies.
New Jersey has found this balance. Gov. Phil Murphy has issued Executive Order 124, which prioritizes public safety and victims’ rights, and capitalizes upon the state’s robust reentry infrastructure. Former New York Police Department Commissioner Bernard Kerik recently described the negative impact that wholesale and blanket releases will have on public safety; Gov. Murphy’s executive order avoids blanket released by instructing the New Jersey Department of Corrections to use its furlough power to place carefully selected people on home confinement.
Before moving to Washington, DC, and joining Right On Crime, I spent much of my career in New Jersey as a criminal trial lawyer and as executive director of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. I also served time in state prison for a non-fatal alcohol-related crash where one of my jobs was to clean the infirmary. That’s how I know social distancing in prison is virtually impossible and the environment is inherently unsanitary. The prison infirmary I worked in was not equipped to handle anything like COVID-19.
Gov. Murphy’s executive order protects public safety by first excluding people who are serving time for committing, attempting, or conspiring to commit any of the 19 violent crimes outlined in the No Early Release Act. These are crimes like murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery, arson, racketeering and aggravated assault.
While most of the crimes that aren’t excluded will not ordinarily have a victim, the executive order ensures that victims’ rights are protected, by including prosecutors and victims in the release equation. This is a coordinated effort between the New Jersey State Parole Board, the Attorney General’s Office, and the individual county prosecutor’s offices.
The executive order also requires the involvement of New Jersey’s robust reentry infrastructure, to ensure that those released will have the tools and support they need to be law-abiding citizens. The government agencies and community providers include the New Jersey Reentry Corporation and Volunteers of America, which cover most of the state. Those providers and government agencies and nonprofits will help provide housing, food, behavioral health treatment, mentoring, workforce development and other critical services.
The executive order requires both a community sponsor and a proposed supervision plan for each released inmate. This requirement builds upon the recently enacted Earn Your Way Out Act. The executive order also prioritizes check-ins by phone and electronic monitoring and requires verification of critical parts of the proposed supervision plan, including housing and social services. The New Jersey Department of Corrections is required to issue a temporary prisoner identification card and assist with applications for SNAP, Medicaid, and the WorkFirst NJ programs to guide these people toward self-sufficiency.
Gov. Murphy’s executive order also streamlines his cabinet to coordinate services, which is critical for effective reentry. Our team at Right On Crime has worked with governors across the country to help streamline reentry services through our Safe Streets & Second Chances project. By coordinating systems, the state saves money and time, and can deliver services that lead to self-sufficiency faster. Coordinated systems and services can prevent drop-off and attrition, which leads to recidivism. Fewer former inmates fall through the cracks.
Balancing public safety and public health in the COVID-19 crisis is not easy, especially in a state that has been hit as hard as New Jersey. Gov. Murphy’s executive order has found a way to prioritize public safety while allowing for the release for a specific population — which makes more sense than general release. New Jersey’s prison system, corrections officers and incarcerated people should benefit from this.