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More than 2,000 New Jersey inmates released to slow spread of coronavirus in prisons

The move came after Gov. Phil Murphy signed one of the first bills in the country to reduce sentences because of the pandemic.

More than 2,000 inmates in New Jersey were released Wednesday in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the state’s prison system — almost a month after the state passed one of the first bills in the U.S. to reduce sentences because of the pandemic.

Liz Velez, a New Jersey Department of Corrections spokesperson, told NBC News in an email that 2,261 adults nearing the end of their prison sentences were released early Wednesday amid rising coronavirus cases in some state prisons.

As of Wednesday morning, the department recorded at least 51 inmate deaths and 4,111 cases, including employees and inmates, since the beginning of April, according to department Covid-19 data.

According to the Marshall Project, which is tracking state and federal prison Covid-19 data, the numbers represent one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the nation.

The move came less than a month after Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill to reduce sentences for inmates to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the state’s prison system.

Under the S2519 bill, prisoners in New Jersey can get their sentences reduced by as many as eight months for every month spent behind bars during the pandemic. People serving time for murder or sexual assault, sex offenders and inmates in federal prisons and county jails are not eligible.

Velez said the law requires prisons to release inmates regardless of whether they tested positive for coronavirus. Eleven Covid-19 positive individuals will receive “personalized transportation plans” in which they will be “medically isolated,” Velez said in an email.

All others who are released will be provided with transportation and housing assistance, masks and “other resources to help manage virus transmission,” Velez said.

Murphy signed an executive order in April that released about 800 inmates early due to the pandemic. The directive, however, did not require legislative action.

In a news release last month, Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that he hopes the new law will be a “roadmap” for the rest of the country.

“The spread of Covid-19 in New Jersey’s prisons, and our highest-in-the-nation death rate has been a matter of public health, a matter of racial justice, and a matter of life and death,” he said in a statement.

“The deaths from Covid-19 were preventable — and, fortunately, with the signing of this bill into law, New Jersey has taken steps to prevent more unnecessary deaths.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 5, 2020, 12:22 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article used incorrect pronouns for Amol Sinha. He is male.