A quarter of the more than 2,000 people who were released early from New Jersey’s prisons on the first day of a pandemic-era law enacted to ease crowding were rearrested within a year, a new study from a team of Rutgers University researchers found.

Among the 2,088 people released on November 4th, 2020, there were 782 subsequent arrests — a recidivism rate of 25.1%, lead researcher Todd R. Clear said. Some were accused of reoffending more than once. That's slightly higher than — but generally on par with — recidivism rates for incarcerated people released prior to the pandemic. The study, which was submitted to a state legislative commission, found the impact to public safety was negligible.

“The likelihood of a person getting in trouble is not affected by these small adjustments in their length of stay,” said Clear, a university professor at Rutgers who specializes in criminal justice.

Researchers examined the state’s Public Health Emergency Credits Act, which allowed people within a year of their release dates to get out up to eight months early during the pandemic. The first-in-the-nation measure released more than 5,000 adults and juveniles over two years and cut the prison population by a third.

“The question is: did the Public Health Emergency Act change the level of risk to the community by releasing people a few months early? And the answer, we believe, is no,” said Clear, who compiled the study for the New Jersey Commission on Sentencing and Criminal Dispositions last month.

Under the early release law, incarcerated people could earn public health credits, or reductions in their sentence due to the pandemic, while the state remained under a public health emergency.

The first group of incarcerated people were released in November 2020, with releases continuing through October 2021. Releases resumed again this February after Gov. Phil Murphy redeclared a public health emergency due to rising COVID case numbers during winter’s omicron wave.

The Department of Corrections said 2,049 people were released this year and another 179 received credits and are pending release. A spokesman declined to comment on the Rutgers report.

The likelihood of a person getting in trouble is not affected by these small adjustments in their length of stay
Todd R. Clear, Rutgers professor

The Rutgers researchers looked at the first cohort of releases from November and found the rearrest rate was 25.1%, the same as those released in 2016 but higher than the 20.9% arrest rate in 2020 before the law took effect. They also found about 11% of rearrests were drug-related, 8.7% for simple assault and 5.7% for theft.

Clear said the early release cohort tended to be younger than their comparison groups and a large number of them were imprisoned on drug-related charges. His study follows an analysis by Gothamist in January that found that, of the first waves of releases in November and December, 9% were back in custody within a year. That was lower than New Jersey’s overall pre-pandemic, one-year reincarceration rate of 16%, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice group based in New York.

Commission chair Deborah Poritz didn’t return a request for comment on the report. William Sullivan, president of NJ PBA Local 105, which represents correctional officers, said the union doesn’t typically comment on these policies and focuses on the well-being of its members.