Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday authorized the early release of as many as 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania state prisons in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
The plan is similar to what other states and some Pennsylvania counties have undertaken, and it comes after talks broke down with Republicans who hold a majority in the state Legislature.
Also on Friday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ordered home confinement and parole for certain inmates in his state.
Wolf's office said releasing inmates will save lives, help stop the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming Pennsylvania's already-burdened health care system.
“We can reduce our non-violent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The releases, to halfway houses or home confinement, could start as early as Tuesday, according to the governor's office.
The plan allows the release of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within nine months of scheduled release, or within 12 months for those considered at heightened risk from the virus.
The temporary reprieve does not apply to inmates incarcerated for certain crimes, including violent crimes, crimes committed with a firearm, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. And it does not apply to inmates who have been denied parole or convicted of any offense while incarcerated.
Pennsylvania's state prisons hold about 44,000 inmates. The Wolf administration said approximately 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are eligible, although some may not be able to be released because of challenges involving health care or behavioral health treatment, as well as housing availability and food security.
House Republican leaders had sought to cap any release of inmates at 450.
Wolf's executive order said the Department of Corrections will discuss each eligible inmate with the courts, the state attorney general's office and county district attorney’s offices.
Inmates given reprieve are to be monitored similarly to parolees and supervised by parole agents, the administration said. They would return to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences when the order expires, it said.
The Wolf administration has disclosed that 11 inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix, in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, have contracted the virus.
The prison system has been on inmate quarantine since March 29, with inmates being fed in their cells and all movement being controlled to achieve social distancing.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported over 1,750 new cases Friday, bringing the statewide total to about 20,000. More than 400 people have died from COVID-19-related complications in Pennsylvania.
Neighboring New Jersey is also looking to lessen the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Certain New Jersey prisoners deemed low-risk could be moved to temporary home confinement or freed on parole because of the spread of COVID-19 under an executive order Murphy announced Friday.
State correctional institutions are seeing COVID-19 spread within their walls, the governor said, leading him to sign the order.
People convicted of what Murphy called serious crimes like murder or rape would not be eligible for home confinement or parole.
New Jersey's death toll from COVID-19 climbed by 233 people to about 2,000 on Friday, Murphy said.