By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Monday gave federal prosecutors more leeway to keep people accused of non-violent crimes out of jail before their trials, saying the new coronavirus pandemic presents unique health risks that must be weighed in each case.
The policy shift issued by Attorney General William Barr comes as the Justice Department faces criticism from defense lawyers, criminal justice advocates and families of the incarcerated over its sluggish and at times adversarial approach to containing the spread in the federal prison system of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Reuters last week reported that federal prosecutors across the United States have been urging courts to deny bond to defendants who are in jail awaiting trial, or filing oppositions to defendants seeking compassionate release and home confinement. [nL1N2BQ33S]
In those filings, prosecutors have often suggested inmates would be safer in prison than at home, and they have expressed skepticism about claims of virus-related illness or risks of illness among people facing incarceration.
Barr said in his memo that prosecutors should continue to fight "zealously" to detain people believed to pose a danger to the community.
But when litigating proposed bail conditions, he said, prosecutors "should now consider the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic."
"You should consider not seeking detention to the same degree we would under normal circumstances -- specifically, for those defendants who have not committed serious crimes and who present little risk of flight (but no threat to the public) and who are clearly vulnerable to COVID-19," Barr wrote.
At least 138 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Bureau of Prisons website.
Eight inmates - five in Oakdale, Louisiana and three in Elkton, Ohio, have died since March 28.
Barr on Friday declared that federal prisons are facing emergency conditions - a move that will now allow it to begin releasing more inmates on home confinement to reduce the prison population.
In a new memo seen by Reuters Monday, the BOP also said it had directed its in-house prison factories to begin producing cloth masks, and in the interim would be giving each inmate one surgical mask per week.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)