By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Thursday he has directed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand its use of home confinement for inmates in appropriate cases, as the coronavirus has continued to spread in the federal prison system.
A total of six inmates and four prison staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, Barr said, adding that several federal facilities including two in New York City are now on lockdown as a result.
The First Step Act, signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump in late 2018, expanded the BOP's powers to maximize the amount of time that lower-risk inmates can spend in home confinement, when possible.
"I've asked and issued a memorandum just today to the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement," Barr told reporters during what he said was the department's first "virtual" press conference in order to practice social-distancing.
"One of the things we have to assess is whether that individual ... will be more safe in the particular circumstance in which they are going to find themselves. And in many cases, that may not be the case."
He added that any inmate released on home confinement will still face a 14-day quarantine before they leave prison.
The plans by the Justice Department to increase the use of home confinement comes as criminal justice advocates and union officials representing prison workers have called on Barr to implement tougher measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading throughout the federal prison system.
Some local jails and prisons in states such as New Jersey, meanwhile, have taken more drastic steps by releasing “low-risk” inmates serving county jail sentences.
The BOP has not signaled it would take such a step, though it has stepped up safeguards, including through the implementation of a policy requiring all new inmates to be quarantined for 14 days.
In a statement, the Justice Collaborative, a non-profit criminal justice group, called Barr's memo a "false promise" that contains more red tape for inmates and will take too long for deserving prisoners to be released.
"The DOJ’s plan is far too slow to save lives," the group said, noting it would be better to fast-track the release of non-violent offenders who qualify based on age and pre-existing conditions.
It added it is "unclear" why inmates would need to serve the 14-day quarantine behind bars if home confinement is an option.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Sonya Hepinstall)