Lawmakers send Gov. Murphy bills to release inmates

CLOSE staff writers Charlie Stile and Ashley Balcerzak discuss the revised budget Gov. Murphy unveiled Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

Thousands of state inmates who have spent the coronavirus pandemic behind bars could soon be released under a bill lawmakers sent to Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday.

A busy voting day at the Statehouse in Trenton largely focused on passing the $32.7 billion state budget, which is now awaiting Murphy’s signature by Oct. 1. But there are several other high-profile bills also headed to the governor’s desk, which ban plastic and paper bags, give certain military members a tax break, and shore up nursing homes ravaged by the coronavirus. Here’s what passed Thursday.

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Inmate releases

One bill, S2519/A4235, would release, by some estimates, up to 3,000 inmates and juveniles from state custody.

If signed by Murphy, inmates within a year of release would get four months off their sentence for each month served behind bars during the public health emergency. Inmates would be eligible for up to eight months off their sentence, and would be released as soon as 16 days after Murphy signs the bill into law.

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Inmates convicted of murder, aggravated sexual assault or who have been deemed a repetitive or compulsive sex offender will not be eligible for early release under the bill.

“By passing this bill today, the Assembly has taken an important step in recognizing that no prison sentence should be a death sentence, and other mothers can be spared the heartbreak of losing a child,” Bernice Ferguson said in a statement provided by the ACLU of New Jersey, which backed the bill. Ferguson’s son, Rory Price, died of the coronavirus just weeks before his release date, according to

“Had this bill been passed earlier,” Ferguson said, “my son would be home today.”

The bill was a response to concern that the Murphy administration’s effort to reduce the prison population amid the coronavirus didn’t go far enough. As of Wednesday, 360 inmates of more than 17,000 had been released through the process set in Murphy’s executive order handed down in April, according to the Department of Corrections. Hundreds more had been released through a parole process set up in the order, according to the State Parole Board.

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New Jersey had the highest coronavirus-related death rate in the country in its prisons, according to the The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization. At least 49 inmates have died during the pandemic and thousands have been infected by the virus. The DOC implemented several rounds of testing in recent months, and later rounds showed a decrease in the number of positive cases.

Tax break for combat pay

Both houses passed a bill (S2050) that would exclude an active-duty service member’s combat pay from the state income tax. According to the bill’s Senate sponsors, military members deployed to combat zones, which are designated by the president and include countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are paid $225 each week on top of regular pay. That stipend is taxed in New Jersey, though the federal government does not tax it.

Legislation to remove the stipend from taxable income has floated around the Statehouse for decades.

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“For soldiers who reside in state, New Jersey wants a piece of that hazard bonus,” Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, said in a statement. “It is time to end this despicable money grab by a state that is infamous for high taxes and over-spending.”

Virtual raffles

Lots of our everyday routines went remote during the coronavirus pandemic and now sports raffles might, too. Large sports venues could conduct raffles, including selling tickets, on the internet under a bill (S2485) lawmakers sent to the governor. Ticket buyers must be in New Jersey and people who draw the winners must do so within the venue, according to the bill.

“With fans unable to attend many athletic events in-person, allowing raffles — including charity fundraising raffles — to be held remotely is one way we can help people enjoy a part of the typical sports experience again,” Assemblyman Joseph Egan, D-Middlesex, said in a statement this week.

Nursing homes and the coronavirus

Lawmakers sent the governor another set of bills that enact recommendations made by consultants hired to review the response to the coronavirus in long-term care facilities, where more than 7,100 residents and staffers have died. The $500,000 report by Manatt Health found nursing homes were unprepared and were not made a priority early in the pandemic, when state leaders instead focused on getting protective gear to hospitals.

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The report has been criticized for leaving out veterans’ homes, which reported the most deaths per facility in the state, and was a sore point within the Murphy administration after Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli objected to the high cost, originally $700,000.

The state Assembly on Thursday passed three bills that now go to the governor to sign into law, which is likely. Murphy can also veto or modify bills and send them back to the Legislature.

  • Bill A4652/S2712 sets minimum staffing requirements. Those are one certified nurse aide for every eight residents during a day shift; one direct care worker for every 10 residents on the evening shift; and one worker for 14 residents on the night shift. Direct care workers include registered professional nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nurse aides. The Senate passed the bill 25-12;the Assembly 51-26.
  • Bill A4007/S2785 requires long-term care facilities to develop “isolation prevention” plans that outline the technology and visitation rules they will follow to keep residents connected to loved ones during a public health emergency. The Senate passed the bill with a 39-0 vote in August; the Assembly voted 79-0 on Thursday.
  • Bill A4479/S2788 says as long as federal funds are available, some direct-care staff in long-term care facilities who earned less than $25 an hour should get supplemental payments for work during the pandemic. The Senate passed the bill 37-0 in August, the Assembly passed it 77-1 on Thursday.

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s lawmakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected] Phone: 732-427-0114 Twitter: @sbarchenger 

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