Democrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement

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More than 25 House Democrats are calling on President Biden to commute the sentences of thousands who were placed on home confinement as part of the government’s effort to decrease crowding in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter spearheaded by progressive Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), as well as Rep. David Trone (Md.), lawmakers said that in addition to commuting those sentences, the administration should establish a review board for pending clemency petitions.

“We urge you to use your authority as President to immediately commute the sentences of the 4,000 people who, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, are currently on home confinement and at risk of being sent back to federal prison, and further, to create an independent clemency board to review the more than 15,000 pending clemency petitions,” the lawmakers wrote in Friday’s letter.

The CARES Act, passed at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, gave the Bureau of Prisons the authority to transfer incarcerated persons who met a series of requirements to home confinement to curb the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

Inmates who had 10 percent of their sentence remaining — or six months left, whichever was shorter — were already eligible for home confinement before the pandemic. But the CARES Act expanded the authority of the Bureau of Prisons to place more inmates on home confinement.

According to the agency, 7,623 people are currently on home confinement. Since March 2020, nearly 32,000 incarcerated people have been put on home confinement under the agency’s new authorities, with many finishing their sentences during that period.

Biden campaigned on prison reform, pledging to lower the country’s federal inmate population. A task force composed of stakeholders from the camps of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a proposal in 2020 that called for moving the clemency process outside of the Justice Department’s purview.

In Friday’s letter, the group of House Democrats highlighted the backlog of nearly 16,000 clemency applications, calling the issue a “constitutional imperative.”

“We … implore you to establish an advisory board — independent of the Department of Justice — to streamline and modernize the decades-old clemency process, and provide expeditious review of the thousands of cases awaiting answers to their clemency petitions,” the lawmakers wrote.

“This advisory board must address the racially disproportionate impacts of our criminal-legal system. There is no reason to wait.”

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world.

The administration has reportedly begun to ask those in the home confinement program with nonviolent drug offenses and less than four years left on their sentence to submit commutation applications. However, Friday’s letter noted that if the pandemic-era program were to end, thousands of people would be returned to prison.

In a statement, a BOP spokesperson told The Hill that the agency is focused on the “expanded criteria for home confinement and taking steps to ensure individualized review of more inmates who might be transferred.”

“The BOP and the [Department of Health and Human Services] continue to explore all potential authorities that could be exercised after the end of the pandemic to help address this issue,” the spokesperson added.

The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment on the letter from lawmakers.

Updated at 12:37 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bonnie Watson Coleman CARES Act Clemency COVID-19 pandemic David Trone home confinement Joe Biden Pramila Jayapal
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