WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Tuesday moved to allow federal inmates to remain in home confinement as the government declared an end to the COVID emergency, reversing a Trump-era legal opinion that said that the Bureau of Prisons would have to recall them to federal facilities.
The change was a rare instance in which Attorney General Merrick B. Garland reversed a high-profile decision made under a previous administration, and won a victory for criminal justice advocates pressing the Justice Department on the issue.
“Thousands of people locked up have reconnected with their families, found gainful employment and followed the rules,” Mr Garland said in a statement.
Congress empowered the Bureau of Prisons to house tens of thousands of federal prisoners as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, passed in spring 2020 to address the myriad threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Including risk. People living and working in overcrowded prisons.
But in January, five days before President Biden took office, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that almost all of those people would return to prison at the behest of the government for what no longer constitutes a pandemic.
About 4,800 inmates who were held in home confinement under the CARES Act, the Justice Department estimates, would have returned to prison if the coronavirus emergency ended immediately, about 2,800.
A Justice Department spokesman said Mr Garland had personally asked the legal counsel’s office to reconsider the opinion.
“We will exercise our authority so that those who have made progress in rehabilitation and have complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who should be given the opportunity to continue transitioning back to society in the interest of justice, are not imprisoned unnecessarily. is returned,” said Mr. Garland.
After the department’s lawyers issued a memo on Tuesday that reversed its earlier position, the attorney general called on prisoner advocates to be informed of the decision.
Holly Harris, president and executive director of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform group, commended the turnaround.
“The constant threat of returning to prison was so terrifying,” she said. “People have found jobs and are reunited with their children. The relief they are feeling right now is huge.”
The Trump-era memo had sparked fear for those in home confinement.
“We were told repeatedly that the memo was out of bounds and there was no hope of it being reversed,” Ms Harris said. “But we were aware of other memos that were reversed, and we thought the administration might do the same.”
In a phone call, Mr Garland told Ms Harris that the new opinion represented a legally correct conclusion. She said that she also believes it is morally correct.
The Office of Legal Counsel said in its new memo that a more accurate reading of the law gave the Bureau of Prisons “the discretion to allow prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there.”
Mr Garland said in a statement that the Justice Department would come up with rules that would ensure it “lives up to the letter and spirit of the CARES Act.”
The Justice Department asked President Donald J. Has refused to reverse other high-profile legal decisions made under Trump. It continued to secret a memo on how former Attorney General William P. Barr considered interpreting the findings of the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The department also chose to continue defending Mr. Trump in a defamation suit filed by author E. Jean Carroll.