The U.S. Department of Justice will allow federal prisoners who were released to home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic to stay there after the emergency ends.
In a Tuesday memo, the DOJ said the Bureau of Prisons will have “discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there.” The agency said it didn’t want to require that all people released home be returned to prisons “en masse” because that might “disrupt the community connections these prisoners have developed in aid of their eventual reentry.” Instead, the agency will only recall people to prison on a case-by-case basis if “justified.”
In January, a Trump administration DOJ memo had decided that people released from prisons would have to go back once the federal health emergency ended. But months of advocacy by criminal justice reform groups and even some Democratic lawmakers led the Biden administration to reverse the policy.
“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, adding that those released should be “given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society.”
Since 2020, over 35,000 people in federal prisons have been sent home, Reuters reported. As of earlier this month, over 4,800 prisoners were in extended home confinement due to the pandemic, the DOJ told the news outlet, and over 2,800 would have been sent back to prisons if the prior ruling hadn’t been reversed.
Criminal justice reform group FAMM celebrated the DOJ reversal as “excellent news for thousands of people and their families to get before the holidays.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) celebrated the news, tweeting that “returning people who are following the rules to prison once the public health emergency ends serves no public health purpose and only works to unnecessarily incarcerate people.”
Under the CARES Act passed by Congress in early 2020, the DOJ was able to release some incarcerated people to home confinement to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in prisons.
During the pandemic, the virus spread like wildfire in jails and prisons nationwide. Over 440,000 people incarcerated in prisons in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 and over 2,600 have died.
In New York City, the corrections commissioner warned of a spike in cases at Rikers jail, where only 38% of those incarcerated were fully vaccinated and where the COVID-19 positivity rate went from 1% earlier this month to over 17% this week. Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi implored the city to reduce the jail population, including through supervised or compassionate releases.