The U.S. Justice Department announced on Tuesday that federal inmates who were permitted to serve their prison terms at home during the COVID-19 pandemic will be allowed to remain there even after the public health emergency is lifted. This decision comes as a relief to many inmates who were concerned about potentially being sent back to prison once the public health emergency expires on May 11.
In March 2020, Congress granted the Justice Department the authority to declare an emergency, enabling the expansion of the pool of low-level, non-violent federal inmates eligible for home confinement. This measure aimed to curb the spread of the coronavirus throughout the federal prison system. However, a January 2021 memo from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel stated that, once the emergency was lifted, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would have no choice but to recall prisoners in home confinement to correctional facilities, as the authority to send more people home was temporary.
Attorney General Merrick Garland explained that the new regulations give the Director of the Bureau of Prisons the discretion to ensure inmates who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement are not unnecessarily returned to prison. This decision is a response to criminal justice and civil rights groups that have been lobbying the Justice Department and the White House to change the rules and prevent inmates from being sent back to prison en masse.
While this new rule offers relief to many inmates, the Bureau of Prisons will still be able to impose “proportional and escalating sanctions,” including a return to prison, on inmates who commit infractions. Since March 2020, over 12,000 inmates have been placed into home confinement, with the department noting that only a fraction of one percent was returned to prison due to new criminal conduct.