As articulated in the New Jersey Reentry Services Commission’s October report, between 12 to 35 percent of inmates in New Jersey state prisons and county jails are hepatitis carriers while only one percent of the general population is affected. Seeking to address the issue, a bill to implement screening sponsored by Assembly Democrats Anthony Verrelli, Louis Greenwald and Shavonda Sumter was advanced in the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.
“Around two-thirds of individuals with hepatitis are unaware they have it,” said Verrelli (D-Mercer, Hunterdon). “As a treatable disease, half the battle becomes screening for it. At the end of the day, this legislation is about taking prudent steps to ensure fairness and safety are central within our criminal justice system.”
Under the bill (A-5832), the Commissioner of Corrections would be required to offer blood testing for hepatitis B and hepatitis C to every person sentenced to a term of incarceration at a State Correctional facility. It further provides for the chief executive officer, warden, or keeper of any county correctional facility to offer blood testing to everyone housed in their facility.
“The cost that ultimately ripples not just to the life of those that suffer from the disease, but also the cost to our state budget in uncompensated care and into our emergency rooms and hospital communities, is something this legislation will address,” said Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington). “Under this bill, we could be able to improve not just health outcomes for incarcerated New Jerseyans, but also lower costs all around.”
Testing would be offered at the commencement of a prison sentence on an opt-out basis, which would give individuals the option not to submit to testing if they so choose.
“The intent of this legislation is to make sure we are offering, not mandating, testing to a vulnerable population who might otherwise not be aware of their exposure,” said Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic). “Offering it in this way could also open the door to treatment when testing is positive, protecting against potential exposure to other inmates as well as those working within the penal system.”
The bill now goes to the Speaker for further review.