Criminal Justice

Inmates confined at home because of COVID-19 emergency need not return to prison when it ends, DOJ says

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Federal prisoners who were placed on home confinement because of the coronavirus emergency don’t necessarily have to return to prison when it ends, according to an opinion by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.

As a result of the Dec. 21 opinion, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he is directing the DOJ to engage in rule-making to make sure that home-confined prisoners who are following the rules may continue to serve their sentences 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,” Garland said in a press release.

The Washington Post and Bloomberg Law have coverage.

Garland’s decision overturns a Trump administration memo that would have forced thousands of people to go back to prison, according to a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The director of the Bureau of Prisons was authorized to place inmates in home confinement for lengthier time periods under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act. Absent the CARES Act, the director couldn’t place inmates in home confinement for more than six months or 10% of their sentence—whichever is lower.

The new Office of Legal Counsel opinion concluded that a “better reading” of the CARES Act does not require prisoners in extended home confinement to be returned to prisons en masse when the coronavirus emergency period ends. The emergency period is the period of the COVID-19 national emergency, as declared by the president, plus 30 days, the opinion explains.

As of Dec. 6, the Bureau of Prisons has placed more than 35,000 inmates in home confinement since the national emergency began in March 2020, the opinion says. As of Dec. 6, 4,879 prisoners were in extended home confinement under the CARES Act. At least 2,830 of them would have to be returned to prison under the Trump administration’s policy if the emergency was to end immediately.

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