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Maryland Lawmakers: Don't Send Prisoners On Home Confinement Back To Prison

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Maryland lawmakers are calling for federal officials to extend home confinement and compassionate release for prisoners who were let out as part of an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

In a letter Friday to Attorney General Merrick Garland and U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, the five lawmakers asked Garland to reconsider a legal opinion issued under the Trump administration that would send as many as 4,500 people back to prison once the COVID-19 emergency passes.

"These individuals were transferred from correctional facilities to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID-19 after the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) determined that they did not present a danger to the public, but a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion issued under the prior administration erroneously concludes that they will have to return to prison," reads the letter signed by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Kweisi Mfume, Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes.

Correctional facilities and jails have been the source of outbreaks throughout the pandemic due to the large number of people living in close quarters, conditions that make it easy for contagious illnesses to spread. According to figures provided by the Bureau of Prisons, more than 250 federal inmates and six BOP staffers have died of COVID-19.

The legal opinion issued by the Justice Department on Jan. 15 found the CARES Act gave the BOP the legal authority to release prisoners to home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic but only while an emergency exists. Once the national emergency ends, the memo states, the BOP is required to bring those prisoners back into its custody.

"This OLC opinion incorrectly interprets the CARES Act, and we join Judiciary Committee Chairman (Sen. Dick Durbin) and Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism Chairman (Sen. Cory Booker) in asking you to direct OLC to review and rescind the memo," said the letter, citing the lack of risk the prisoners posed to the public and the cheaper costs resulting from home confinement.

The letter pointed to the example of Ms. Gwen Levi, a 76-year-old Baltimore woman who served most of her 24.5-year sentence before being released to home confinement in June 2020. Levi was sent back to prison a year later due to a misunderstanding over halfway house rules because she did not answer her phone. Levi was later granted compassionate release despite the DOJ's opposition.

Levi recently described her experiences in an op-ed for The Washington Post in which she called for President Joe Biden to step in and keep 4,000 people on home confinement from going back to prison.

"President Biden, please act now to keep these people home," Levi wrote in the July 15 op-ed. "They are doing everything right, yet they wake up every day not knowing where they will be in a few months, and that uncertainty makes it impossible to plan for their futures. Please remove that cloud. Commute their sentences now."

Citing Levi's story, the lawmakers asked the BOP and DOJ to support compassionate release and prevent the re-incarceration of those transferred to home confinement. They also echoed Levi's request for the Biden administration to consider reducing prison sentences for or pardoning prisoners who have complied with the terms of their home confinement.

"We believe that these actions align with this administration's stated support for reducing the incarcerated population in our country and for realigning our criminal justice system to focus on rehabilitation over punishment," the lawmakers wrote. "Thank you for your attention to this matter."

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