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Prisons and courts get coronavirus help in Senate relief bill

Fast-moving bill addresses 'urgent' needs at prisons

The nation’s prisons would get funding and increased priority for protective gear and test kits for COVID-19 under a massive financial rescue package designed to curb the economic damage from the pandemic, while federal courts would get more money and the ability to conduct video or telephone criminal proceedings.

The Senate version of the bill, publicly released Wednesday afternoon, would provide $100 million to the Bureau of Prisons for salaries in the federal prison system to DOJ. The funds would go for correctional officer overtime, personal protective equipment and supplies and inmate medical care and supplies, according to a Republican summary of the bill.

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The measure also says there is an “urgent” need for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits for the federal prisons, based on “the density of the inmate population, the high traffic, the high volume of inmates, the high rate of turnover of inmates and personnel, and the number of high-security areas.”

The BOP’s inability to purchase infectious disease personal protective equipment and related supplies now and in the future is a “vulnerability,” as it is competing with all other federal agencies and private companies for that gear, the bill text states.

The relief bill would direct the Health and Human Services Department to consider the prisons when it comes to the distribution of personal protective equipment and test kits.

Concerns have grown over COVID-19 spreading through the nation’s jails and prisons, a particularly vulnerable population because medical care is in short supply and confined spaces make social distancing a challenge.

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The highly contagious virus is already at the door of some prisons and sparking changes. Three inmates and three staff members have tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, the BOP website states. The prisons took other steps, such as suspending all social visits, volunteers and non-essential contractors from federal prisons for 30 days, as well as limiting inmate transfers between prisons.

Criminal justice and civil rights groups have asked the DOJ to release of the most vulnerable inmates — those who are elderly or with chronic health conditions — and to slow prison admissions and reduce overcrowded conditions.

The relief bill would authorize the Justice Department to lengthen the maximum amount of time that a prisoner can be placed in home confinement during the COVID-19 epidemic. The law currently allows a prisoner to go to home confinement for either six months or 10 percent of an inmate’s sentence, whichever is shorter.

And the bill would allow the Bureau of Prisons to quickly create new rules to allow video and telephone visitations with inmates that are free of charge.

The bill also would provide $850 million for state and local law enforcement and jails through a grant program. An earlier House version of the bill, which had proposed $500 million, said that included the purchase of personal protective equipment, through a grant program.

A Democratic summary of the bill says that it includes language to ensure the resources are distributed quickly and prevent the Trump administration from imposing roadblocks on so-called sanctuary cities that have policies that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.

The bill also would sprinkle funding through other areas of the Justice Department: $20 million to the FBI, $15 million to the DEA, $15 million to the U.S. Marshal’s Service, $3 million for federal prosecutors, $2 million for information sharing technology, and $2 million to DOJ watchdog’s office to respond to the virus to investigate and audit funding made available to DOJ in the bill.

Those funds would be “for information technology improvements and security needed for telework at the Department of Justice,” according to a Democratic summary of the bill.

Courts

The Supreme Court would get an additional $500,000 to “expand its capacity for staff to work remotely and continue mission critical activities,” while the rest of the federal courts would receive $6 million and federal public defenders would receive $1 million so they can work remotely to represent clients without disruption.

The federal courts asked for the funds to ensure the information technology department can give judges enough bandwidth to accommodate an increase in remote work. And about $4.5 million of the request would go for mental health and drug treatment programs for criminal defendants on probation or pre-trial services.

Those are usually group programs, but must be done individually because of the social distancing measures needed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The bill authorizes federal judges to use video or telephone conferences for necessary court proceedings, such as detention hearings, initial appearances, preliminary hearings, waivers of indictment, arraignments, probation and supervised release revocations, pretrial release revocations, and misdemeanor pleas and sentencings.

Judges would also be able to hold felony pleas and sentencing hearings via video or telephone if they find that it cannot be conducted in person without jeopardizing public health and safety and there are specific reasons that the particular case can’t be delayed further “without serious harm to the interests of justice.”

The defendant would have to consent to the video or telephone hearing.

And the bill would require the Supreme Court to consider changes to the law that addresses what emergency measures federal courts can take when the president declares a national emergency.

Also, the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office can change deadlines under the intellectual property law or regulations.

The bill gives an extra $50 million to Legal Services Corp., a program for civil legal aid for the poor that distributes grant funds to states. The agency got $440 million for fiscal 2020, and had already requested $609 million for fiscal 2021, saying that a majority of the millions of Americans who can’t afford legal help can’t get it.

“This funding can help LSC clients facing job losses, eviction, domestic violence and consumer scams resulting from the coronavirus crisis,” a Democratic summary of the bill states.

A House version of a bill had included $100 million for LSC. Ron Flagg, the president of LSC, said that the economic fallout from the coronavirus would increase the need for legal services among those already living in poverty, and also cause more people below to fall below the poverty line.

Local legal aid programs funded through LSC have curtailed direct face-to-face services, so some of the money will quickly go to obtain equipment to work remotely via video or telephone, Flagg said.

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