New Jersey’s first-in-the-nation move to free thousands from prison early due to the pandemic hasn’t significantly affected public safety numbers, according to an analysis of state data by WNYC/Gothamist.

The state’s early release program gave people nearing the end of their sentence “public health credits” to shave as much as eight months off their time behind bars, ultimately cutting the prison population by 40% in a span of 11 months.

Now, more than one year after the first 2,500 people were released in late 2020, new data obtained through a public records request shows about 9% of those were re-incarcerated. That’s lower than the state’s overall pre-pandemic, one-year recidivism rate of 16%, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice group based in New York.

“This shows that New Jersey was able to release a large number of people during the pandemic to make a public health choice,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute. “And do it in a way that also reduced their recidivism rate, which is hard to do and is a sign of the policy's success.”

While other states tried to reduce their prison populations through executive orders and by prioritizing the release of medically vulnerable inmates, New Jersey’s public credits law was a legislative measure that more bluntly slashed the prison count. Governor Phil Murphy signed the law in October 2020, as the state’s prison system grappled with one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the county. The first group of eligible inmates were released on November 4th of that year. All told, more than 5,300 people were let out early until the measure expired last year, but not enough time has elapsed for those released later to accurately assess their recidivism rates.

The state’s prison population is currently at levels not seen since the 1980s.

“It begs the question of why are we normally leaving people in for that extra [time]?” said Alex Shalom, a senior supervising attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey that advocated for the public health credits law. “We unnecessarily are damaging communities and harming people's economic prospects and harming families by keeping people incarcerated longer than necessary.”

WNYC/Gothamist analyzed the list of inmates who received public health credits and verified their release date and custody status using the state’s inmate lookup tool. The early recidivism numbers are the first glimpse at the law’s impact on public safety after a year — and a snapshot in time.

The data shows about 230 individuals released in November or December of 2020 were reincarcerated in state or county facilities, with most of them held on parole violations. Parole violations can vary in severity, from a criminal offense to missing an appointment with your parole officer. The re-incarceration rate compiled by WNYC/Gothamist does not include arrests that didn’t result in time behind bars.

“I do think one of the problems is that all arrests get thought of as roughly equal, but they're not,” said Todd Clear, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in criminal justice. He said the 9% re-incarceration rate is consistent with the research he’s compiled for state lawmakers that looks at recidivism among early releases but is not yet public.

The emergency releases under COVID did not change, in any meaningful way, the public safety risks
Todd Clear, professor at Rutgers University specializing in criminal justice issues.

“The emergency releases under COVID did not change, in any meaningful way, the public safety risks,” he said.

About two dozen individuals were convicted on new crimes such as theft or unlawful possession of a weapon, though it’s unclear how many more may be pending criminal charges that have not been settled in court.

Clear said studies also show reducing a person’s time in prison by a few months does not exacerbate recidivism: the percentage of people likely to be re-arrested generally stays the same, it just happens sooner.

Liz Velez, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said while the early data was encouraging, “it would be premature to speak to an external review of preliminary data.”

“The NJDOC is proud to be a leader as the state with the lowest recidivism rates, which we attribute to our rehabilitation and reentry efforts,” she said. Velez said the state tracks recidivism over a three-year period but is working with reentry groups to expand services based on what they learned from the early release program.

Alex Altman, a spokesperson for Murphy, said the state’s growing reentry programs “are a critical tool in giving individuals the supports needed to thrive in the community.”

New Jersey’s three-year recidivism rate, according to the most available numbers, is 30%, which is lower than the national average of about 50%.

Analysis of all 5,300 early releases also shows 64% of those released early were Black and 22% were white. That’s roughly on par with the state’s prison population which is 61% Black and 20% white. There was no category for Hispanic or Latino, but 14% were categorized as other.

New Jersey has the worst racial prison disparity in the country. Black people are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of white people — much higher than the national average where Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. New Jersey is also one of 12 states where more than half the prison population is Black.

“Of course we want to reduce disparities,” Shalom from the ACLU said. “But when you pass an emergency bill like this — that's designed to provide short term relief to protect people — if you can do that without exacerbating disparities, that is a success.”