New Jersey lawmakers are making an unprecedented push to release roughly 20 percent of the state’s prison population amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to the New York Times, the COVID-19 bill that would make it possible is expected to be voted upon on Thursday. 

Data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press show that New Jersey’s prison death rate is the highest in the nation, and Prison Policy Initiative reports that among those incarcerated, Blacks make up more than 50 percent.   

Since the start of the pandemic, an executive order made it possible for the Garden State to release more than 300 at-risk inmates, and an additional 700 from county jails, but 48 incarcerated individuals have also died during this time and one other passed away at a high-security reentry facility.

A health worker holds a sign during a nurses protest at Rikers Island Prison over conditions and COVID-19 threat
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 07: A health worker holds a sign during a nurses protest at Rikers Island Prison over conditions and coronavirus threat on May 7, 2020 in New York City. By the end of last month, more than 1,300 people in the city’s jail system had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections. One prisoner who died from the virus, Raymond Rivera, was being held on a parole violation at Rikers, the city’s largest jail complex. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Social justice advocates and lawmakers in support of the COVID-19 bill argue that prison is not supposed to be a death sentence, but given the inability to social distance, prisons throughout the country have become exactly that.

If approved, NYT reports that the COVID-19 bill could free more than 3,000 inmates — about one-fifth of the 16,704 people serving state criminal sentences in New Jersey. By reducing the prison population, supporters hope that infection rates among the incarcerated, and the guards who service the prisons, will see a steep decline. 

Since March, nearly 3,000 inmates accounting for roughly 17 percent of the population, and another 781 employees have tested positive for the virus at New Jersey Department of Correction facilities. A number of employee deaths during this time have been linked to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 bill would release inmates within a year of completing their sentences based on credits awarded for time served during the pandemic. Sex offenders would not be eligible, but those involved in other violent crimes could qualify. Gov. Bill Murphy has not indicated whether or not he would sign the legislation.

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