The US Department of Justice retracted its legal opinion on Tuesday, saying it will allow federal prisoners who have been placed in home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic to stay out of prison.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the measure after months of lobbying President Joe Biden from criminal justice groups, lawmakers and other activists. In the final days of the Donald Trump administration, the Justice Department indicated that inmates who were sent to house arrest would have to return to prison at the end of the emergency period declared during the pandemic. Approximately 3,000 inmates have reportedly been returned to prison.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said Tuesday that it has “not deviated a bit from our precedent and we have given the positions we expressed in our previous opinion careful and respectful consideration.”
The bureau concluded that pre-existing BOP authorities “do not require the return of inmates in extended home confinement en masse to correctional facilities after the expiry of the emergency period.”
The confinement in the original home was approved under the CARES Act signed by Trump in March 2020. As the virus spread, then-Attorney General William Barr instructed federal prisons to increase the use of home confinement and speed up the release of inmates at risk of infection. Certain requirements with the increase in cases of coronavirus infection, especially in places of detention. Priority was given to those in low and medium security prisons where the virus is spreading the fastest.
“Thousands of people staying home have reconnected with their families, found paid jobs and followed the rules,” Garland said in a statement. “In view of the view that the Office of the Legal Counsel issued this today, I have instructed the Department to begin a rule-making process to ensure that the Department complies with the letter and with the substance of the CARES Act.”
More than 35,000 inmates have been released as part of the plan to mitigate the conditions of the pandemic, provided that certain criteria are met, among which they do not pose a danger to others. However, 2,830 of the 4,879 people still in their home cells had to return to prison, according to the Security Council. The others have served their sentences.
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