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House pitches justice system changes in new COVID-19 relief bill

Bill aims to keep fewer people locked behind bars during the pandemic

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks about the $3 trillion bill to aid in recovery from COVID-19 at the Capitol on Tuesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks about the $3 trillion bill to aid in recovery from COVID-19 at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/POOL)

House Democrats proposed more than $1 billion in additional spending to address the coronavirus outbreak in the nation’s prisons in a new relief bill unveiled Tuesday, along with provisions for sweeping changes to how the justice system handles prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes focus on keeping fewer people locked behind bars while the pandemic moves through the nation. They include the release of certain non-violent prisoners and detainees into community supervision, as well as the end of practices such as cash bail requirements for those arrested for crimes and required probation revocation for some technical violations.

In a 44-page section called the “Pandemic Justice Response Act,” the bill would require the release of prisoners and those in the custody of U.S. Marshals Service who are within a year of being released, or those who are juveniles, over 50 years old or have a health condition such as diabetes, heart disease, HIV, cancer or are pregnant.

Public health experts say incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable to the grave harms of the virus because they have higher rates of underlying health issues, the bill states. And the close conditions and lack of hygiene products make prisons “unusually susceptible to viral pandemics,” the bill says.

Criminal justice and civil rights groups have asked the DOJ to release most vulnerable inmates — those who are elderly or with chronic health conditions — and to slow prison admissions and reduce overcrowded conditions. Those groups have criticized the scope and speed of the Justice Department’s actions in those efforts.

The Bureau of Prisons reported 49 federal inmates died from COVID-19 as of Monday, with 3,379 inmates and 250 staff who have positive test results for the disease. There are 140,000 inmates, along with 11,000 in community-based facilities, and 36,000 bureau staff.

The bill points out that studies show that “individuals age out of crime” at about 25 years old, and prisoners over 50 years old have “very low” rates of committing additional crimes when they are released.

The provisions require only those without a risk of violence be eligible, and the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. district court judges also must “take into account and prioritize placements that enable adequate social distancing, which include home confinement or other forms of low in-person-contact supervised release.”

The bill would also spend an additional $250 million on Second Chance Act grants, which help ease the transition of prisoners back into society and to prevent them from committing another crime and returning to the criminal justice system.

Another section of the bill, called “COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Write Prison Phone Justice,” would require “just and reasonable” phone charges for state and local prisons and jails. Congress, in the prior relief bill, made such visitation free at federal prisons.

“Unemployment has risen sharply as a result of the COVID–19 pandemic, straining the incomes of millions of Americans and making it even more difficult for families of incarcerated persons to pay the high costs of confinement facility communications services,” the bill states.

The bill, set for a vote Friday, would give the Bureau of Prisons an additional $200 million “for medical testing and services, personal protective equipment, hygiene supplies and services, and sanitation services” at federal prisons, according to a Democratic summary of the bill.

Congress already gave the prisons, in the prior relief bill, an extra $100 million for similar COVID-19 costs.

The new relief bill also includes $600 million for grants to “prevent, detect, and stop the presence of COVID-19 in correctional institutions,” as well as rapid COVID-19 testing at prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

The bill also would add $600 million to grant programs to help local law enforcement respond to the pandemic. And it includes provisions to spend $100 million more to Violence Against Women Act grants for programs such as transitional housing and domestic abuse assistance.

The bill would also provide another $50 million to Legal Services Corp. for grants for civil legal aid for the poor. The organization received an additional $50 million in the prior relief bill.

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