Leading Democrats oppose Biden plan to end house arrest and potentially return inmates to prison after the pandemic

In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, prisoners stand outside the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo.
Prisoners stand outside the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo.

  • Since March 2020, more than 28,000 people have been released from federal prison due to COVID-19.
  • Those released were assessed to face severe health risks if they contracted the coronavirus.
  • Those released currently have to return to prison a month after the pandemic formally ends.
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Two leading Senate Democrats are urging the White House to reconsider a legal opinion that could potentially return thousands of people to a federal prison.

At issue is a pandemic-era policy, approved by Congress, that allowed the federal government to release inmates who were deemed to have especially serious health issues putting them at heightened risk from the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Those prisoners – 28,587 since March 2020 – were allowed to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had concluded, like its predecessor, that the authority to transfer prisoners to home confinement would expire once the federal government lifts the state of emergency declared due to the pandemic.

There are currently 7,225 federal inmates in home confinement, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that there is no reason to return those people to prison.

Since being released, those now in home confinement “have posed no threat, and are already reintegrating into society, reconnecting with their families, and contributing to our economy,” he said in a statement.

Durbin urged the administration to other reconsider its legal analysis or use other tools, “like compassionate release and clemency,” to ensure that no one is returned to prison.

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and leading advocate in the upper chamber for criminal justice reform, said he was “deeply troubled” by the Biden administration’s interpretation of the law.

“The Trump-era’s Office of Legal Counsel opinion that will require incarcerated individuals return to prison once the public health emergency ends serves no public health purpose,” he said in a statement, “and only works to unnecessarily incarcerate people who have succeeded in re-entering society.”

In April, Durbin and Booker sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland arguing that Congress never intended to rescind home confinement. They say have not heard back.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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