NJ expected to release thousands of inmates early statewide

Officials are releasing about 2,261 adults, more than the governor's office previously estimated, and 50 juveniles


By Blake Nelson
NJ.com

EDISON, N.J. — Early Wednesday morning, hours after the nation’s last polling places have closed, New Jersey is expected to let out thousands of prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence in the largest single-day release of inmates in recent state history.

Officials are releasing about 2,261 adults, according to a corrections spokeswoman, more than the governor’s office previously estimated and fifty juveniles. That represent about a fifth of the adult and juvenile populations. The adult inmates are leaving a prison system that has recorded the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation.

The adult inmates are leaving a prison system that has recorded the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation.
The adult inmates are leaving a prison system that has recorded the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation. (Photo/Michael Mancuso of NJ.com via TNS)

Proponents have cast the new law as a necessary way to save lives after officials failed to protect dozens of inmates and several staff who died with COVID-19.

“As the virus spread we were not flexible enough to keep the people in our custody safe,” state Sen. Nellie Pou, D- Passaic, and a sponsor of the bill said earlier this year.

The law knocks up to eight months off sentences, while excluding people convicted of murder, aggravated sexual assault and “repetitive, compulsive" sex offenders. No other state has passed similar legislation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Prisoners without rides will be bused to Newark Penn, Trenton Transit, Pennsauken Transit and other transportation hubs around the state, according to sources briefed by Murphy’s administration.

Eleven inmates getting out have tested positive for coronavirus, but officials said none will be taken to public trains or buses.

The law also requires victims to be notified. Some families have protested the plan, including one devastated by a crime two decades ago.

Robert Valentine was shot repeatedly in front of his wife and 16-month-old son while the family opened presents at their Bridgewater home on Christmas Day 1999, according to a letter from the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office objecting to the killer’s early release.

Anthony Cignarella was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and two weapons charges, according to prison records. While he was originally scheduled to be freed next March, the law bumped his release up to Wednesday.

Valentine’s mother received a form letter late last month notifying her of the release.

“I’m just more frustrated that we really weren’t given the opportunity to fight because of the short notice,” said Valentine’s niece, Emma Lourenco. “We aren’t the only family that this is happening to.”

For others, the law came too late.

Rory Price, who was in prison for a weapons charge, died from the coronavirus just weeks before he was supposed to go home, according to his mother.

Early releases “can save other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and countless loved ones the heartbreak I have been through from knowing my child’s death could have been prevented,” Bernice Ferguson said in a statement last month.

Inmates will continue to have sentences reduced as long as the public health emergency remains in effect. Murphy’s office previously estimated another 1,000 people will be released early in the following weeks through January.

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(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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