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Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey considered the plea of a man who claimed his kidney problems made Covid-19 especially dangerous for him. The man, Maurice McPhatter, 49, was one of more than 20,000 federal prisoners who have sought early release during the pandemic. Thousands have been freed through that process.

Mr. McPhatter, who was serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking, explained in a handwritten letter that he was born with only one kidney and now had a large kidney stone. Results from a blood test scored Mr. McPhatter’s kidney function as low.

But then the judge, Kevin McNulty, did something that sank Mr. McPhatter’s chances of early release. The prison medical records contained instructions that kidney test scores for African Americans should be adjusted, using a decades-old formula that drew a distinction between races. Mr. McPhatter is Black, and the resulting “race adjustment” put his score on the healthy side of a commonly used threshold for chronic kidney disease.

“He is at no particular risk of a dangerous Covid infection,” the judge concluded in his decision... see more