A bipartisan group of US senators is coming together to try and secure early, compassionate release for elderly federal prisoners. The newly introduced bill comes after more than 200 prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions, more than half of whom were over 60 years old, have now died as a result of coronavirus.
That’s in spite of the First Step Act being signed into law just over two years ago — a law aimed at making prisons safer, including for elderly prisoners, and reducing recidivism.
Those coronavirus numbers have spurred a bipartisan group of eight senators to introduce the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to further clarify eligibility rules for elderly prisoners and declare that federal prisoners sentenced before Nov. 1, 1987, be eligible immediately for compassionate release.
The effort is being led by US Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-authors of the First Step Act.
In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its careSen. Chuck Grassley
They’re asking for the changes after finding that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has opposed nearly all compassionate release requests based on vulnerability to coronavirus, though courts have approved many early releases over the objections of the Department of Justice and BOP.
The First Step Act was created to help inmates successfully return to society after serving their sentences and to help reduce outdated, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. Durbin and Grassley say the law needs to be strengthened, especially now with coronavirus cases soaring in prison populations.
“My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended,” Durbin said in a release announcing the legislation. “This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus, which we know thrives in places like prisons.”
Even though former President Trump signed the act into law, Republicans like Grassley are also frustrated with how the last administration administered (or refused to administer) their law.
“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care,” Grassley said. “We already established important home confinement and early release programs in 2018, which are especially important right now as older inmates face very serious risks because of the virus. Our bill will clarify and expand those programs we wrote into the First Step Act, so we can better protect these vulnerable populations.”
The new legislation is also co-sponsored by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Many advocacy organizations have announced their support, including Americans for Tax Reform and Digital Liberty, Drug Policy Alliance, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Right on Crime Sentencing Project.