TRENTON — Legislation designed to free thousands of inmates from state prisons through a “COVID credit” that reduces their sentences by a year stalled unexpectedly in a Senate committee Wednesday.

The bill was shifted from the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee to an unusual forum, the Senate Commerce Committee, which heard 40 minutes of testimony on the bill, all in favor. It then delayed a vote while the meeting recessed for 16 minutes, turned attention to other bills, then ended for the day.

“At this time, I’m going to just hold off from taking a vote. I think this was helpful in trying to use this as an opportunity to hear the bill,” said state Sen. Nellie Pou, D-Passaic, the committee chairwoman and sponsor of S2519.

“It’s going to be used as more of a hearing, at which point we will revisit that at a later time and continue working on that particular bill,” she said.

Citing the fact New Jersey has the nation’s highest COVID-19 death rate among inmates in the country, the bill requires public health emergency credits to be awarded to all inmates except for repetitive, compulsive sex offenders. That would make more eligible for immediate release.

“You’ve seen places like Kentucky and Oklahoma, which are hardly bastions of politicians who are soft on crime, you’ve seen those state release more people and recognizing that the reason to release them is because it protects everyone,” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

“It protects the people who get out. It protects the people who remain. It protects employees and it protects our community,” he said.

The Department of Corrections has tested all inmates and staff for COVID-19 and around 12% of tests have come back positive. That includes 781 staff members and almost 2,750 inmates.

Forty-six inmates have died, according to NJDOC data.

“Don’t let their sentence be a death sentence of the neglect and the negligence of the DOC,” said Bernice Ferguson, whose son died in prison from the coronavirus.

Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order in April allowing the NJDOC to grant temporary emergency home medical confinement to at-risk inmates who hadn’t committed a serious offense. Around 3,000 were eligible for consideration. To date, 254 have been released.

The Senate Commerce Committee includes five members: three Democrats and two Republicans, one of whom was unable to attend the meeting. One of the Democrats, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, had questioned why a prisoner sentencing bill was being heard by the commerce panel.

“Commerce is more of a regulatory body for licensing and scope of practice, insurance issues, that kind of stuff. These seem like judiciary or public safety kind of issues,” said Scutari, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Pou acknowledged it is unusual but said the Legislature during the pandemic isn’t operating on its typical schedule and so bills are being redirected to ones that are meeting.

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