- Thousands of prisoners were allowed to serve time at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
- About 2,000 face the possibility of going back to prison, although some have secured jobs and gone back to school.
- Advocacy groups have been urging President Biden to use his presidential powers to grant clemencies to thousands of prisoners.
WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of criminal justice advocates asked President Joe Biden to grant clemency to federal prisoners who were allowed to serve their sentences at home because of the pandemic but face the possibility of going back to prison.
“This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back to society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs and going back to school,” said the letter Monday from 20 advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and NAACP, which asked Biden to exercise his broad presidential powers by commuting the inmates’ sentences.
Advocates have pushed Biden to aggressively use his powers, including by granting clemency to hundreds of incarcerated women, citing his campaign promise to cut the federal prison population.
“President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people reenter society. As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and brown. His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, and give people a chance at a better future,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement, which did not address whether Biden will consider granting clemency to prisoners who were sent home during the pandemic.
Federal law allows prisoners to serve either the remaining 10% or six months of their sentence, whichever is shorter, through home confinement. Last year, the Trump administration, under a coronavirus relief law, allowed about 24,000 nonviolent prisoners who had not met this criteria to serve their sentences at home to slow the spread of the virus behind prison walls.
But a Justice Department memo issued in January says inmates whose sentences will extend beyond the pandemic must be brought back to prison. These include inmates who have since gotten jobs and started school since they were sent home last year but still have years left in their sentence.
As of Monday, about 2,000 prisoners sent to home confinement will be potentially brought back to prison, although the Bureau of Prisons has the discretion to keep inmates home if they’re near the end of their sentences. The rest have either finished their sentences or met the 10% or six-month threshold for home confinement.
Advocacy groups urged the Justice Department to rescind the legal memo, but the agency has so far not taken such action. The department said in May that inmates with years left to serve are not likely to be sent back to prison anytime soon because the public health crisis is expected to last for the rest of the year.
Inimai Chettiar, federal director of the Justice Action Network, said the groups are putting pressure on the White House after “lack of action and lack of response” from the Justice Department.
Udi Ofer, deputy national political director for the ACLU, noted that Biden ran on a promise to reduce the federal prison population. “Now is his opportunity to make good on that commitment.”
“These individuals had to meet numerous stringent requirements set by the administration to be allowed to enter home confinement, including that they will not be a risk to public safety,” the letter said.
Of the 24,000 prisoners allowed to go home last year, 151 – less than 1% – violated the terms of their home confinement and three were arrested for new crimes, according to statistics cited by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, during a congressional hearing in April.
Gwen Levi, who was allowed to go home last year and had four years left in her sentence for drug charges, said inmates and families “deserve peace of mind.”
Levi was arrested last month after going to a computer class. She said she believed she had been cleared to do so and missed phone calls from officials supervising her home confinement. A Bureau of Prisons report called the incident an “escape.”
Levi was freed after a federal judge granted her request for compassionate release, a process that allows inmates to be eligible for early release if there are compelling circumstances, such as advanced age and sickness. Levi, 76, is in remission from lung cancer.
“I am glad to be free now, but I know what all the other families are dealing with,” Levi said. “The president should take action now.”
Source: USA Today – Breaking News