The Justice Department is relaxing a contentious policy to recall thousands of federal prisoners who had been released to home confinement to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The action, outlined in an opinion issued Tuesday by Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, grants the federal Bureau of Prisons broad discretion to "permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there."
“Thousands of people on home confinement have reconnected with their families, have found gainful employment, and have followed the rules," Attorney General Merrick Garland said. "We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who in the interests of justice should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, are not unnecessarily returned to prison.”
Since late March 2020, according to the Department of Justice, the prison system has placed more than 35,000 inmates in home confinement under all terms of such relief. Nearly 5,000 of those were allowed to return home under provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES). At least 2,800 of those released under the CARES Act would have been required to return to prison at the the end of the pandemic emergency.
The department's opinion, coming in the midst of resurgence of the virus, effectively amends a January 2021 memorandum requiring the recall of prisoners, a policy that has prompted challenges from civil rights and other advocacy groups.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of criminal justice advocates asked President Joe Biden to grant clemency to federal prisoners who were allowed to serve their sentences at home because of the pandemic.
"This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back to society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs and going back to school," a consortium of groups said in a July letter, urging Biden to exercise authority to commute inmates' sentences.
On Tuesday, Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), lauded the DOJ's action.
“This is excellent news for thousands of people and their families to get before the holidays,” Ring said. “There is no way the people on... home confinement should have been sent back to prison, and we are very grateful to the Biden administration for fixing this mistake.
“We hope clemency remains on the table for those who no longer warrant home confinement. But for now, today’s decision will ease a lot of concerns and fears.”
Holly Harris, president and executive director of the Justice Action Network, characterized the Justice Department's decision as "a Christmas miracle!”
“This is an amazing moment for all of the men and women who shared their stories and the advocates who spent the last ten months pushing for this policy change,” Harris said.
Contributing: Kristine Phillips
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ relaxes policy to recall federal prisoners on home confinement