By Sarah N. Lynch and Jarrett Renshaw
WASHINGTON – U.S. civil rights groups are asking the White House to broaden a plan to grant clemency to inmates released to home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying its current policy wrongfully excludes people convicted of non-drug-related crimes or those still facing lengthy sentences.
The clemency initiative is an attempt to prevent the return to prison of some 4,800 federal inmates who were released early due to the pandemic emergency, as the Bureau of Prisons scrambled to slow transmission rates in its facilities.
The 29 advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Justice Action Network and FAMM – a group that opposes mandatory minimum sentences – are not alone in questioning the return of so many people to prison: U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has raised the same concerns.
“It would be a terrible policy to return these people to prison,” Garland told lawmakers last month.
But the Justice Department he leads argues it lacks the legal authority to allow the prisoners to continue to serve their sentences at home after the state of emergency allowed by a March 2020 law expires.
There is no clear date for when that may occur, though the Biden administration expects the public health crisis to last through at least 2021.
The Justice Department and the White House are only allowing the released inmates to apply for clemency if they are low-level non-violent drug offenders with 18 months to four years left on their prison terms.
That bars drug offenders serving lengthy prison terms, as well as white-collar offenders, such as those convicted of tax evasion, bank or mail and wire fraud.
The White House and Justice Department declined to disclose how many of the 4,800 inmates will be eligible or to explain why they had offered clemency only to that particular class of inmates.
But criminal justice advocates said they believe just a tiny fraction will be eligible, since federal drug convictions carry steep mandatory minimum sentences.
“We argued for the entire population to get clemency. In response, they came back with this very, very narrow solution,” said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Justice Action Network, which advocates for criminal justice reforms.
While the Justice Department typically reviews and makes recommendations for clemency, the White House has the sole power to commute federal sentences or issue pardons.
A White House official told Reuters the clemency review underway is “just the beginning.”
“This is an initial clemency review, consistent with the president’s campaign promise and it’s the starting point for our process, leaving the door open for other populations,” the official said.
Criminal justice advocates have long complained that the president’s clemency powers have not been used enough to spare low-level drug offenders, many of whom are often addicts, from lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.
Such strict sentencing requirements for drug offenses have disproportionately impacted African Americans, in part thanks to rules which treated drug crimes involving crack more harshly than those involving cocaine.
In recent years views on how to treat drug offenders have also evolved, with some experts saying people with drug addictions should be rehabilitated rather than locked in prison.
NEED FOR CONGRESSIONAL ACTION
Criminal justice advocates have lobbied the White House and the Justice Department to rescind the memo outlining the department’s views on the limits of its home confinement authority, and provide a legal pathway to keep people home, though Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal has previously said only Congress can change the law.
Without an immediate legislative fix — and with the bitterly divided Congress facing a steep to-do list — the groups urged the White House to take action on clemency for all the released inmates.
“We don’t want any arbitrary line-drawing between someone who happened to sell drugs and somebody who failed to pay taxes,” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group FAMM.
At stake is the future of people like Travis Rogers, who was released from federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, to home confinement in June 2020, but has seven years remaining on his sentence for conspiring to distribute methamphetamine.
A recovering addict for 11 years, he has built a new life since his return home by landing a job building car engines, reconnecting with his adult daughter and helping care for his aging father.
“I feel like it’s unjust,” Rogers said in an interview, noting he has turned down promotions at work because he fears he could be returned to prison.
He said that his crimes were driven by addiction, and that he has learned his lesson after serving a decade in prison.
“It would be better to try to rehabilitate drug dealers than throwing them in prison,” he said.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)