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May 26, 2020

"Bill Barr Promised to Release Prisoners Threatened by Coronavirus — Even as the Feds Secretly Made It Harder for Them to Get Out"

The title of this post is the headline of this significant new ProPublica piece discussing yet another ugly example of how the Department of Justice acts more like a Department of Incarceration.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Even as the Justice Department announced that federal prisons would release vulnerable, nonviolent inmates to home confinement to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the agency was quietly adopting a policy that makes it harder for inmates to qualify for release, not easier. The result has been that more than 98% of inmates remain in federal custody, while a handful of celebrity inmates, like former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, have been released to home detention.

In two memos, one in late March and a second in early April, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, to begin identifying inmates who could safely be released to home confinement — essentially house arrest. They instructed prison officials to grant “priority treatment” to inmates deemed to present minimal risk to the public.

Separately, however, the Bureau of Prisons had drafted a 20-page policy document this year that altered a standard adopted only a year ago and made it harder for an inmate to qualify as minimum risk.

ProPublica obtained a copy of the document, which does not appear to have been finalized, and its existence surprised and baffled lawyers, prison reform advocates and inmates interviewed for this article....

The Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on the unpublished policy document has exacerbated widespread puzzlement about how the agency is implementing Barr’s home-confinement order. “There’s been nothing but confusion,” David Patton, the chief federal public defender for the New York City area, said. “We’ve received a steady stream of questions from clients about their scores, and we have no answers, because BOP doesn’t give us any.”

Fewer prisoners have been released than was expected when the attorney general made his announcement, lawyers say. About 3,050 inmates have been moved to home confinement as of May 21, Bureau of Prisons records show. That’s around 1.8% of the people under the bureau’s supervision. That figure is significantly smaller than the roughly 20% of inmates who fall into the minimum risk category (though it’s not automatic that all of them would qualify for release) under the 2019 rules.

The slow pace of prisoner releases has begun to attract attention. On May 19, a federal judge accused officials at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio — the site of a deadly coronavirus outbreak cited by Barr in his order — of moving too slowly to release inmates and “thumbing their noses” at Barr’s directive. He instructed them to expand the class of inmates eligible for home confinement by including inmates not only with minimum-risk scores, but also those said to have a low risk. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to halt the order.

At the urging of Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who co-authored the First Step Act, the Justice Department’s inspector general has agreed to examine the scope of Barr’s directive as well as the Bureau of Prisons’ compliance with it and the agency’s overall response to the pandemic.

May 26, 2020 at 06:57 PM | Permalink

Comments

Political duplicity at its finest!

Posted by: James Gormley | May 26, 2020 8:47:01 PM

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