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DOJ says federal inmates can remain on home confinement after COVID pandemic ends

Thousands of federal inmates may be allowed to continue serving their sentences at home after the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the Justice Department announced Tuesday. The decision reverses a Trump-era decision that would have required the Bureau of Prisons to reimprison the inmates. 

Now, more than 7,700 inmates will be able to remain on home confinement under the bureau's control. 

"BOP's interpretation avoids requiring the agency to disrupt the community connections these prisoners have developed in aid of their eventual reentry," Christopher Schroeder, the assistant attorney general in the department's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in a new 15-page opinion. 

"Instead, it allows the agency to use its expertise to recall prisoners only where penologically justified, and avoids a blanket, one-size-fits-all policy."

In total, over 36,000 inmates have been released into home confinement since March 2020, many of whom have either completed their sentences or been sent back to prison for particular violations. The bureau's rules still apply to inmates on home confinement: any violation or crime would land them back in prison. 

"Thousands of people on home confinement have reconnected with their families, have found gainful employment, and have followed the rules,"  Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "In light of today's Office of Legal Counsel opinion, I have directed that the Department engage in a rulemaking process to ensure that the Department lives up to the letter and the spirit of the CARES Act."

Garland added, "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."

Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland on September 9, 2021. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

In March 2020, former President Trump signed the CARES Act into law in response to the pandemic, which, among other things, expanded the Bureau of Prison's ability to place more inmates on home confinement. The Trump administration under Attorney General William Barr released minimum-security inmates without prior violent offenses and no disciplinary issues while in prison. In April 2021, the Biden administration loosened the program's criteria, allowing prison wardens to refer inmates for home supervision. 

Prison and criminal justice reform advocates, like the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, have pushed for home confinement to continue after the pandemic. 

"There is no way the people on CARES Act home confinement should have been sent back to prison, and we are very grateful to the Biden administration for fixing this mistake," FAMM President Kevin Ring said. "We hope clemency remains on the table for those who no longer warrant home confinement. But for now, today's decision will ease a lot of concerns and fears."

Robert Legare contributed to this report.

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