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July 19, 2021

New York Times reporting Biden Justice Department agrees with OLC memo stating prisoners transferred to home confinement must return to prison after pandemic ends

As reported in this new New York Times article, headlined "Biden Legal Team Decides Inmates Must Return to Prison After Covid Emergency," it appears that the US Department of Justice is not changing its view of the limits of congressional authority to move people to home confinement under the CARES Act. Here are the details:

The Biden administration legal team has decided that thousands of federal convicts who were released to home confinement to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 will be required by law to return to prison a month after the official state of emergency for the pandemic ends, officials said on Monday.

The administration has come under pressure from criminal justice reform activists and some lawmakers to revoke a Trump-era memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which said inmates whose sentences lasted beyond the “pandemic emergency period” would have to go back to prison.

But the Biden legal team has concluded that the memo correctly interpreted the law, which applies to about 4,000 nonviolent inmates, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity about sensitive internal deliberations.  Several officials characterized the decision as an assessment of the best interpretation of the law, not a matter of policy preference.

The official state of emergency is not expected to end this year because of a rise in new infections caused by the coronavirus’s Delta variant. But the determination means that whenever it does end, the department’s hands will be tied.

That leaves two options if those prisoners are not to be sent back into cells: Either Congress could enact a law to expand the Justice Department’s authority to keep them at home beyond the emergency, or President Biden could use his clemency powers to commute their sentences to home confinement.

The Biden team is said to be wary of a blanket, mass commutation, however, both because it would represent an extraordinary intervention in the normal functioning of the judicial system and it could create political risks if any recipient who would otherwise be locked up commits a serious crime.  Another option is case-by-case assessment for commutations, but the volume of work required to individually evaluate so many people is daunting.

When asked for comment, the White House responded with a general statement about the administration’s support for policies that can reduce incarceration. “President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “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.”...

The disclosure of the Biden legal team’s internal decision came as an ideologically broad range of advocacy groups — nearly two dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition — stepped up pressure on the Biden administration not to recall inmates from home confinement when the emergency ends.

Notably, however, those organizations issued a letter framing their request in terms of Mr. Biden using his clemency powers to resolve the issue. “On the campaign trail and during your presidency, you have spoken about the importance of second chances,” according to the letter. “This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back into society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs and going back to school. We urge you to provide clemency now to people under CARES Act home confinement.”

I do not find this news especially surprising; if there was any considerable legal wiggle room here, I think the Justice Department would have spoken some time ago.  And, as this article highlights, I have sense a number of advocates have been talking up blanket clemency as the most fitting way to resolve this issue.  But I am always eager to highlight the point I made in this recent post, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?," that Congress readily could (and I think should) enact a statute that provides for the home confinement program to be extended beyond the end of the pandemic.

In addition, as I highlighted in this recent post, another option for case-by-case relief is through compassionate release motions.  This is how Gwen Levi got relief, and such motions have the potential to reduce sentences and not just allow these sentences to be served at home.  Of course "the volume of work required" for so many CR motions would be considerable, but the Justice Department could (and I think should) support and even bring sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

Some prior recent related posts:

July 19, 2021 at 06:48 PM | Permalink

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