WASHINGTON—Thousands of federal convicts released to home confinement to reduce the spread of the coronavirus won’t be required by law to be returned to prison once the official state of emergency for the pandemic ends, the Justice Department said Tuesday, reversing an earlier opinion that would have potentially sent them back en masse.
Instead, according to the new determination, the federal Bureau of Prisons can use its discretion in deciding whether some offenders can remain at home once the state of emergency is lifted, which isn’t expected anytime soon given the rise in new infections caused by the Omicron variant.
The Biden administration had faced pressure from Democrats in Congress and prisoner rights groups to reverse a Trump-era memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that found inmates who hadn’t served out their sentences after the pandemic would have to do so in prison. That prospect led to confusion and fear among prisoners on home confinement, which has allowed many of them to work and see relatives within the boundaries of monitoring requirements.
Biden officials initially concluded Trump Justice Department officials correctly interpreted the CARES Act, which was signed into law in March 2020 in response to the pandemic.
earlier this year asked the office to reconsider its prior legal opinion after personally studying the underlying statute and determining it should be reviewed, a department official said.
Since March 2020, federal prisons officials have placed more than 35,000 inmates on home confinement, according to the new memo issued on Tuesday, most of whom have since finished their sentences or have less than a year remaining. Nearly 8,000 of them are still serving their time at home.
”We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who in the interests of justice should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, are not unnecessarily returned to prison,” Mr. Garland said in a statement.
The Bureau of Prisons plans to develop criteria to determine which convicts should be allowed to remain on home confinement once the state of emergency ends.
The agency shouldn’t be forced to “disrupt the community connections these prisoners have developed in aid of their eventual reentry,” wrote Christopher Schroeder, head of the Office of Legal Counsel. The new legal memo allows prison officials to use their judgment and avoids a “blanket, one-size-fits-all policy,” he wrote.
Criminal-justice advocates cheered the move. “This is excellent news for thousands of people and their families to get before the holidays,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has advocated for broader changes to the criminal-justice system.
Prisons have been hard hit by the coronavirus. At the federal level alone, more than 42,000 inmates have contracted the virus, including at least 367 who have currently tested positive; nearly 9,000 staff members have also had the virus, with 245 who are currently positive, according to the Bureau of Prisons. At least 273 inmates and seven staff members have died as a result of the disease.
The Omicron variant has overtaken the Delta strain in the U.S. and accounted for an estimated 73% of infections for the week ending Dec. 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. The Omicron variant is causing Covid-19 cases to double every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission, the World Health Organization said over the weekend. The variant’s rapid spread is set to put more strain on U.S. hospitals in the coming weeks,
Dr. Anthony Fauci,
the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said Sunday.
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