In a sweeping acknowledgment of the risks of the coronavirus in cramped prisons, New Jersey will release more than 2,000 inmates on Wednesday as part of one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.
More than 1,000 additional prisoners will be released in the coming weeks and months after earning early-release credits for time served during the health crisis — resulting in a roughly 35 percent reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since the pandemic began ravaging Northeast states in March.
Beyond the health imperatives, the emptying of prisons and jails comes at a moment when there is intense national debate over transforming a criminal justice system that ensnares people of color in disproportionate numbers.
In New Jersey, supporters of the freeing of prisoners said it would not only help make prisons safer, but would also build on the state’s efforts to create a fairer penal system. But opponents said they were worried about releasing so many inmates at once and potentially posing a public safety risk in communities where they end up.
The mass releases were made possible by a bill that passed with bipartisan support in the New Jersey Legislature and was signed into law last month by Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, as part of the first legislative initiative of its kind in the country.
Prisoners in New Jersey within a year of completing sentences for crimes other than murder and sexual assault are eligible to be released as many as eight months early. They will be freed through the gates of state prisons and halfway houses, or driven by bus to transit hubs to begin treks to the county where they last lived, according to state officials and criminal justice advocates.
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