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June 23, 2020

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new bill to make modest, but still important, reforms to federal elderly home release and compassionate release

As reported in this new press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), authors of the bipartisan First Step Act, landmark criminal justice reform legislation, introduced new, bipartisan legislation to reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release from federal prisons. "  The release provides some notable contextual data and well some details of the bill's particulars:

Sadly, more than 80 federal prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19 have died as a result of the virus, more than half of whom were over 60 years old.  Elderly offenders, the fastest-growing portion of the prison population, have much lower rates of recidivism and are much more expensive to incarcerate due to their health care needs. 

Since enactment of the First Step Act, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has opposed the vast majority of compassionate release petitions.  In 2019, 1,735 requests for release were initiated by or on behalf of prisoners, of which 1,501 were denied by wardens and 226 of which were forwarded to the BOP Director.  Of these 226, BOP approved only 55 and denied 171.  Since March of this year, only about 500 inmates have been granted compassionate release in the midst of the pandemic, nearly all of them by court order over the objections of the Department of Justice and BOP.  BOP has reportedly refused to approve any compassionate releases based on vulnerability to COVID-19.

“At the end of 2018, Congress came together to pass one of the most important criminal justice reform laws in a generation.  Now we have an obligation to ensure that this law is properly implemented,” Durbin said.  “My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended.  This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus.  I’m hopeful that this commonsense, bipartisan legislation will pass swiftly through the House and Senate and will be signed into law.”

“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care.  We already established important home confinement and early release programs in 2018, which are especially important right now as older inmates face very serious risks because of the virus.  Our bill will clarify and expand those programs we wrote into the First Step Act, so we can better protect these vulnerable populations,” Grassley said.

Specifically, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act would reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release by:

  • Clarifying that the percentage of time served required for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program should be calculated based on an inmate’s sentence, including reductions for good time credits (H.R. 4018, which passed the House by voice vote);
  • Expanding the eligibility criteria for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to include nonviolent offenders who have served at least 50 percent of their term of imprisonment;
  • Clarifying that elderly nonviolent D.C. Code offenders in BOP custody are eligible for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and that federal prisoners sentenced before November 1, 1987 are eligible for compassionate release;
  • Subjecting elderly home detention eligibility decisions to judicial review (based on the First Step Act’s compassionate release provision); and
  • Providing that, during the period of the pandemic, COVID-19 vulnerability is a basis for compassionate release and shortening the period prisoners must wait for judicial review for elderly home detention and compassionate release from 30 to 10 days.

The following organizations support the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act:  Aleph Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Digital Liberty, Drug Policy Alliance, Due Process Institute, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Right on Crime, Sentencing Project, Taking Action For Good, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and Tzedek Association.

A section-by-section of the legislation is available here.

Bill text is available here.

I have placed in bold the provisions of this new bill that strike me as particularly noteworthy and that could prove most consequential. In short form, this bill would seem to authorize (though not require) judges to move most persons over the age of 60 from federal prison into home confinement as soon as they approach serving about half of their initially imposed prison sentence.  Sound like a great idea to me, and it also sounds like another version of another kind of "parole light" proposal of the sort I discussed a few years ago in this article

June 23, 2020 at 01:44 PM | Permalink

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