New Rule Makes Thousands of Federal Prisoners Eligible for Release


WASHINGTON — Thousands of federal inmates are eligible for release this week under a rule the Justice Department released Thursday that would allow more people to participate in a program that allows inmates to earn shorter prison terms.

As part of these guidelines, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has begun transferring eligible inmates to assisted release programs, residential return centers, or house arrest.

The rule, along with a ministry decision last month that well-behaved inmates released from house arrest during the pandemic will not have to return to prison, is an important step toward overhauling and downsizing the federal prison system. , which some Democrats and Republicans view as expensive and often unfair.

The guidelines published Thursday in the Federal Register will affect how the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons implement the First Step Act, the sweeping bipartisan criminal law legislation enacted in 2018 under the Trump administration. The measure expands vocational training and other efforts to reduce recidivism, expands early release programs and changes criminal laws.

The law gave the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons leeway in interpreting some aspects of its implementation, including whether good behavior and vocational training credits accrued before the law was passed could be used to fund parole. to request. Under former Attorney General William P. Barr, the department had proposed a rule that would count only for credits assigned and completed after January 15, 2020.

Critics argued that the proposed rule did not accurately reflect the intent of the lawmakers who drafted the bill, and that it kept thousands of people behind bars who should be released immediately.

Last May, Senators Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s top Republican, urged the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons to to revise the proposed rule.

The senators said the proposed rule would prevent inmates from participating in First Step Act programs and undermine the effectiveness of the law. They said it included restrictions that were not part of the law, and penalties that were unnecessarily harsh.

“While losing hard-earned credits would be easy, the rule makes recovering credits too difficult,” they wrote.

In the guidelines announced Thursday, the Justice Department said inmates could apply for credits earned as early as 2018, when the First Step Act was enacted, subject to eligibility determination by the Bureau of Prisons.

The Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform group, said the new guidelines could lead to the release of as many people as were released immediately after the passage of the First Step Act, which numbered more than 3,100. The decision to be placed under house arrest has already affected about 2,800 inmates. According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are 157,596 federal inmates.

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