As the coronavirus swept through New Jersey’s prison system last year, killing inmates at the highest rate in the nation for months, state leaders took an unprecedented step: They slashed the prison population by 40%.

“No other state has been able to accomplish what New Jersey has accomplished,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, “making it the nation's leading de-carcerator and I think that's a badge that we should wear with honor.”

In October 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that allowed those within a year of release to get out up to eight months early. The first-in-the-nation measure ultimately freed nearly 5,300 adults and juveniles from state custody over the last 11 months.

“New Jersey's prison population plummeted under the law, reaching a level that it had not been in for decades and creating a much more manageable … population for the correction system,” said Todd Clear, a university professor at Rutgers who specializes in criminal justice.

He said the prison census dropped to numbers not seen since the 1980s. “New Jersey was the most aggressive [state] and it was the most expansive across the largest proportion of the population,” Clear said.

The law essentially sped up the earning of “good time off” and gave people public health credits, or reductions in their sentence due to the pandemic. Those convicted of murder, first-degree sexual assault, or repeat sexual offenders were not elligible. Under the law, the state warned local prosecutors of who was being released and banned former prisoners from contacting their victims.

“We're talking about people who were going to be released anyway,” said Sinha, of the ACLU that helped come up with the measure. “If we have a system where the government is to be held accountable for people in its custody, that means making sure that we give people who are incarcerated the best chances of survival.”

While there’s no data yet on the rates of recidivism among those released early, Clear said several studies show that reducing an individual’s time in prison by a few months does not affect recidivism. He said the percentage of people likely to be re-arrested stays the same, it just happens sooner.

“This law did not change public safety whatsoever,” Clear said. “All it did was to move some arrests that would have occurred downstream to earlier.”

But those releases have now stopped. When Murphy ended the state’s public health emergency this summer, he also ended the window for early releases. The last person freed early was on October 4th.

“It's a moment in time and it has gone away and the prison population in New Jersey is now in the business of rebuilding itself,” Clear said. “If people like a smaller prison population, we have the tools to do that: Just make this law permanent.”

A report by the Department of Corrections ombudsman’s office said while the program was useful to reduce COVID-19 inside the prison system, it should’ve applied to more people who were either quarantined or sick from the coronavirus and had release dates past the cut off period.

New Jersey’s DOC oversaw about 18,000 people in its system, pre-pandemic. Spokeswoman Liz Velez said the population is now down to 10,800. She said 5,181 individuals were released between November 4th, 2020 and October 4th, 2021. A spokesperson for the Juvenile Justice Commission said 109 juveniles were freed under the measure.

Martin Fitzgerald, 51, was one of the first people released from state custody under the program last November, along with more than 2,000 others. It was the largest single-day release for any prison system in the country, according to Clear.

Fitzgerald is now living in a rooming house in Highland Park and working as a meat clerk at a wholesale store.

“You're working, you're staying out of trouble. You're doing all the right things and things are lining up for you or falling into place,” Fitzgerald said in an interview recently. “Little by little, slowly but surely, I finally come out of whatever box I might still be in. For now, I just gotta be thankful.”

He recently got promoted to a full-time position and got a raise. He’s spent the last year paying back his student loans and some outstanding parking tickets. He passed his driver’s license test and recently got a car.

“When it comes to people that are coming home, they want to land where Martin is, they want to get home, they want to get to work, they want to get some of their dreams cast into the sky, and then they want to just chase those things and they don't want to fall on their face,” said Amos Caley, an organizer with Salvation and Social Justice and pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.

Caley met Fitzgerald a year ago when he was struggling to refill his prescription at the local pharmacy. Through his church and organization, Caley gave Fitzgerald a suit for his job interview, as well as work boots, and helped him secure an affordable room.

“You actually give somebody a chance, making something out of their lives when they come home, they're going to take that opportunity,” Caley said.

But despite new state rules to provide more support for people being released, the same day Fitzgerald was released some former prisoners were dropped off at transit stations often without a promised state identification card crucial for renting an apartment, securing benefits or getting work. There were those who didn’t know where to go or how to find their loved ones.

Fitzgerald was one of the lucky ones, who had family waiting for him on the other side. He said the last year has still been tough. He’s looking for another place to live that’s quieter and roomier, with fewer housemates.

“You don't want to live in a place where there's people doing dumb stuff,” he said.

He found an apartment that was promising until the landlord ran a background check — and rejected him. While a new state law bans landlords from checking a person’s criminal record until after they’ve conditionally approved a renter, that law won’t kick in until January.

“I guess people are not as forgiving, when it comes to those of us who have been incarcerated,” Fitzgerald said. “Even though we paid our debt to society.”