WASHINGTON — The Justice Department decided on Tuesday to place certain federal inmates under house arrest as the government ends the Covid emergency, reversing a Trump-era legal opinion saying the Bureau of Prisons would take them out. have to recall to federal facilities.
The unusual shift was a rare occurrence as the department under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland reversed a high-profile Trump-era decision. It was also a victory for criminal justice advocates.
“Thousands of people under house arrest have reconnected with their families, found gainful employment and followed the rules,” Garland said in a statement.
Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement that President Biden also welcomed the change, noting “the relief it will bring to thousands of people under house arrest who have worked hard to rehabilitate and contribute to their communities. “
Congress gave the Bureau of Prisons the power to release federal prisoners under house arrest as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, passed in March 2020 to address the threats of the coronavirus pandemic, including risks to people in crowded areas. prisons.
But five days before Mr Biden took office in January, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ruled that nearly all those people would have to return to jail once the government said the pandemic was no longer an emergency.
Criminal law proponents and some lawmakers — including Illinois Democrat Senator Richard J. Durbin and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee — urged the new administration to change course. But in July, DailyExpertNews reported that lawyers for the Biden administration had decided the Trump-era memo had correctly interpreted the law.
During a trip to Chicago days later, Mr. Durbin mr. Garland to get personally involved, according to a person familiar with the case. The following month, government officials characterized the previous assessment as a preliminary assessment and said a more formal assessment was underway.
As an alternative to prevent some inmates under house arrest from returning to prison, the White House was working on a leniency program for some nonviolent drug offenders and considered using compassionate release for others.
Criminal defense proponents, deeming these plans inadequate, urged on Nov. 30 that White House officials, including Susan E. Rice, the domestic policy adviser, reconsider the Trump-era memo.
Of the approximately 4,900 inmates placed under house arrest under the CARES Act, approximately 2,800 would return to prison if the coronavirus emergency ended, according to estimates by the Justice Department.
“We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitation progress and have met the conditions of house arrest, and who, in the interests of justice, should be given the opportunity to continue their return to society, are not unnecessarily sent back to prison .” said Mr. Garland.
A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed that the Attorney General had asked the Office of Legal Counsel to reconsider his memo.
Christopher H. Schroeder, who took over the office in late October, signed the replacement memo, concluding that it was a “better” interpretation of the law.
mr. Garland called Mr. Durbin and inmate lawyers on Tuesday to notify them of the reversal.
Holly Harris, the president and executive director of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform group, welcomed the change. Mr Garland said in conversation with her that the new opinion was the legally correct conclusion; she called it morally correct.
“People have gotten jobs and are reconnecting with their children,” said Ms. Harris. “The relief they must feel now is overwhelming.”
The Trump-era memo had created a state of fear for the likes of Wendy Hechtman, who faces more than eight years in prison for producing a chemical analog of fentanyl.
“There are so many families who were really terrified,” said Ms Hechtman, who was afraid to tell her sons she would have to go back to prison. “I’m just so relieved that I don’t have to hurt them unnecessarily again.”
The new memo gives the Bureau of Prisons “discretion to allow inmates on extended house arrest to remain there,” a decision that still leaves the lives of prisoners in the hands of the Justice Department, said Udi Ofer, the director of the Justice Department of the ACLU.
The Justice Department has refused to overturn some high-profile Trump-era legal decisions, continuing to keep a memo secret about how William P. Barr, the former Attorney General, discussed the findings of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference. in the election and to defend President Donald J. Trump in a defamation suit filed by the writer E. Jean Carroll.
But the Justice Department under Mr. Garland has reversed the Trump administration’s course on law enforcement and criminal justice issues. Mr. Garland imposed a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of the department’s policies and procedures. And he repealed a policy that restricted the use of consent decrees to address police misconduct.