Coronavirus Update: State Approaches 55K Cases, 2K Deaths; Nonviolent Prisoners Considered for Release


Prisoners with health risks, expiring sentences, and parole potential will be considered for ‘temporary emergency medical home confinement,’ officials say. Meanwhile, the state could resort to emergency borrowing. 

By Matt Skoufalos | April 10, 2020

NJ COVID-19 Dashboard – 4-10-20. Credit: NJ DOH.

Another 3,627 New Jersey residents were confirmed to have contracted novel coronavirus (COVID-19), bringing the statewide total to 54,588 cases, Governor Phil Murphy reported Friday.

Furthermore, 233 more New Jerseyans lost their lives due to complications from COVID-19, bringing the statewide death toll to 1,932 residents.

As of Friday, 7,570 residents were hospitalized, either with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or an investigation into their circumstances. Of those, 1,679 were reported in critical or intensive care, and 1,663 of them were on ventilators.

Finally, for the 24-hour period ending at 10 p.m. last night, 682 residents were discharged from hospitals.

Murphy cautioned residents that although the number of new positive cases could be flattening out, the death toll will likely continue to climb, as officials comb through data collected from tests administered a week ago or longer.

“Even though those metrics are beginning to look a little bit more positive, we will still lose many folks in this state, sadly, because the folks we’re announcing today who lost their lives may have been infected several weeks ago,” the governor said.

“We’re now seeing the sad end to some of the realities that hit us weeks before.”

NJ Gov. Phil Murphy announces a “temporary emergency home confinement” order for NJ Prisoners – 4-10-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

Release of nonviolent offenders to mitigate COVID-19 risk in prisons

In his biggest announcement of the day, Murphy issued an executive order scheduling the release of certain nonviolent inmates from state prisons. The plan is designed to limit their risk for contracting the virus and spreading it to others in the close-quartered correctional system.

Cases will be reviewed individually. Only prisoners 60 or older, those with high-risk medical conditions that place them “at particular risk for COVID-19,” those who had been denied parole in the last year, or whose sentences are set to expire in the next three months,” will be considered, the governor said.

Those individuals “may be placed on temporary home confinement, or granted parole, if already eligible, through an expedited process,” Murphy said.

No one convicted of a serious crime “such as murder or sexual assault, among others, will be eligible for consideration,” he said.

The governor said every potentially eligible inmate must have an individualized release plan to ensure he or she will have access to all necessary services, including medical support and housing. Those for whom those standards cannot be met will not be released, and everyone on home confinement will be subject to DOC supervision.

New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks – COVID-19 Briefing 4-10-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

“We have dual or twin responsibilities here,” Murphy said: “protecting those who work in our prisons and those who are incarcerated.

“Social distancing is extremely hard to accomplish in a prison setting,” he said.

“Allowing some of our most vulnerable individuals who do not pose a public safety threat to temporarily leave prison will protect both their health and the health and safety of the men and women working in our correctional facilities,” the governor said.

Marcus Hicks, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC), said the order “is just another tool for us to help us mitigate this issue.”

The DOC had already banned visitors at its prisons and halfway houses at the outset of the pandemic, and Hicks outlined a number of other mitigation protocols in place within the system, including disinfection procedures, personal protective gear for corrections staff, health screening of new prisoners at intake, and quarantine and isolation areas for those affected by the virus.

Officials are terming the structured release a “temporary emergency medical home confinement.” Hicks said the DOC does not have an exact count of how many prisoners might be eligible for it.

To date, 129 DOC employees have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 20 inmates, Hicks said. Within the system, 400 asymptomatic inmates believed to be at risk for COVID-19 have already been quarantined, as have 1,000 DOC employees.

One inmate has died from complications related to the virus.

Several other states and the federal government have enacted similar measures to release low-risk prisoners from their state, county, and local jails curing the pandemic. On March 22, New Jersey ordered some 1,000 low-level offenders released from its county jails for similar reasons, and with the conditions that they stay at home during the pandemic and return to complete their sentences at its conclusion.

NJ Governor Phil Murphy – COVID-19 Briefing – April 10-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

State could borrow without a referendum, unemployment levels pass Great Depression figures

Finally, the governor said New Jersey could exercise its constitutional authority to borrow money if federal resources sufficient to battle the pandemic don’t come through.

“It’s something we are looking closely at,” Murphy said.

“Everything’s on the table.”

According to the state Office of Budget and Management, long-term borrowing is restricted to 1 percent of total appropriations outside of a bond referendum, but “short-term borrowing to cover cash flow needs, provided such borrowing is repaid within the same fiscal year,” is allowable. New Jersey has already extended its 2020 fiscal year to September 30 and the deadline to file state taxes to July 15.

Revenues are expected to be dramatically affected, however, as all indicators of economic instability are coming in at historic levels. Unemployment claims are “breaking any prior record by 10X in our state, in our country, frankly,” and eclipsing levels seen in the Great Depression, Murphy said.

The question of whether the present joblessness outlook will hang around for a decade, as it did in the Great Depression, has more to do with whether the financial system will endure in the crisis, Marketplace reported previously, citing “other indicators to watch for,” such as “bankruptcies, the inflation rate and signs of distress in the credit markets.”

Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.

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