Democrats in Congress urge Biden to extend COVID prisoner releases


WASHINGTON – Citing the case of a Baltimore grandmother who was briefly returned to prison for a technical violation, five Maryland lawmakers urge the Biden administration to overturn the Justice Department’s opinion that could reincarcerate up to 4,500 people currently serving sentences at home once the COVID pandemic subsides. .

Under a provision of the Coronavirus Relief Program that became law last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was authorized to transfer home inmates who were nearing the end of their sentences and were not at risk for their community – a measure to reduce the spread of COVID in overcrowded prisons.

But an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of the Legal Counsel (OLC), released five days before President Donald Trump left, concluded that those released from house arrest should return to jail once the COVID emergency is declared over. .

“… Recalling these people from prison does not serve the public interest,” Maryland lawmakers wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland on September 17. for this group of Americans.

The letter was signed by Democrats Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Representatives Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Timonium and John Sarbanes, D-Towson.

Donald Murphy, public affairs spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment to Capital News Service whether the OLC’s opinion was actively scrutinized by the Biden administration.

In their letter, lawmakers spoke about the circumstances of Gwen Levi, a 76-year-old Baltimorean grandmother, who had served 16 years of her 24-and-a-half-year sentence on a non-violent drug conspiracy conviction. As the pandemic swept through prisons, Levi was released in June 2020 to live in house arrest due to her age, a lower risk of recurrence and a greater susceptibility to contracting the coronavirus.

She was among around 24,000 prisoners released at home after a rigorous screening process, but Levi briefly returned to federal prison on June 12, after technically violating the conditions of her release by not answering a phone call while a pre-programmed computer word processor. class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Levi was released on July 6 under an order from Judge Deborah Chasanow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Still, Maryland lawmakers wrote Garland that they “were surprised at the department’s opposition” to Levi’s release out of compassion.

“She played by the rules. She loved her country. She cherishes her faith and because she was not available for a phone call during her class, we find that the federal authorities made an effort to send her back to jail, ”Mfume told Capital News Service. going to find situations like this over and over again.

Mfume added: “His case is instructive and we talk about it all the time because we believe that if we take this as a barometer, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons will rebuild the way they perform their duties with some kind of empathy for individuals, while ensuring that the real people who need to be incarcerated are incarcerated. ”

The congressman, who represents Baltimore, Baltimore City and Howard counties, recalled that Levi entered his office shortly after Chasanow’s order released her. She thanked him and the rest of the delegation for helping her.

“She just said very humbly that she was so happy that someone, that is me and others here in Maryland, paid attention to her case because she would always be where she was. is, ”Mfume said.

Kara Gotsch, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on injustices in the criminal justice system, said the Justice Department’s opinion was “devastating” to those who stay at home. them and now face the possibility of being returned to federal prison.

“It’s a shame that the White House and the DOJ seem to be supporting this OLC memo released by the Trump administration,” Gotsch told CNS.

She has been in communication with the Biden administration, asking for pardons, executive privilege to shuttle between prison terms,for anyone who has served home confinement sentences, but the White House is considering granting it only to some, according to Gotsch.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, but there is no reason anyone who has a proven track record in the home containment program to be fired,” she added.

Meanwhile, Representative David Trone from Gaithersburg joined with 27 other House Democrats in calling on President Joe Biden to “immediately switch the sentences” of the 4,000 people currently confined to their homes due to the COVID emergency but facing a return to prison after the emergency I sent.

Lawmakers have also called for the creation of an independent council to review a massive backlog of more than 15,000 clemency petitions.

“Almost all of those released have prospered since returning home, reconnecting with their families and communities, and actively engaging in civic life,” Trone and colleagues wrote to the President on September 17. “Mr. President, with the stroke of a pen you could eliminate the threat of re-incarceration that hangs over thousands of people who have already demonstrated their commitment to being productive members of their communities.

Tiheba Bain, director of coalitions at the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Women and Girls, believes Biden has a chance to show his political support as an advocate for criminal justice reform, a promise he made to the Americans during last year’s presidential campaign.

“We have to come back and see him again,” Bain told CNS. “We think Biden as a progressive president, in a certain sense, is the right platform to really bring awareness to it.”

Maryland Ranks Fifth Overall for Most Compassionate Release Applications in Federal District Court, Latest US Sentencing Commission Report Says Report 2020-2021. Just over two-thirds of all compassionate release petitions made in the US District Court in Maryland have been dismissed; only 193 requests were accepted out of 564 requests.

Gotsch said the home containment policy is “one of the bright spots” in the federal government‘s response to protecting inmates from the COVID pandemic.

“It was a successful experience that we should learn from and develop instead of retracting,” Gotsch said. “We shouldn’t go back to the way things were. We must learn from and build on this success so that we can have a more compassionate, fairer and more secure criminal justice system. “

This article was originally published on on Monday, October 18, 2021.

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