The House Judiciary Committee on Monday became the latest group urging Attorney General William Barr to release to release “as many prisoners as possible” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats on the panel asked Mr. Barr to start with the low-level vulnerable offenders before moving on to others who present “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to be released.
The panel’s move comes after the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported its first coronavirus-related death Saturday when a 49-year-old drug offender succumbed to COVID-19 in Louisiana. Patrick Jones, who had been serving a 27-year-term at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution was transferred to a hospital March 19 where he tested positive for the virus.
The following day, Jones’ conditioned worsened and he was placed on a ventilator, the bureau said. Jones, who was said to have had long-term, preexisting medical conditions, began serving his sentence in April 2017.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said at least five inmates at the prison complex have tested positive. Oakdale houses about 990 men.
All told, 14 inmates and 13 staffers throughout the federal system, which detains around 175,000 prisoners, have tested positive for the virus, the bureau said last week.
In a letter to Mr. Barr, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said Jones’ death highlights the need for “urgent” action.
“This death and the explosion of cases in the Oakdale prison underscore the urgency of taking action to prevent more avoidable deaths of individuals in federal custody,” wrote Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and the panel chairman.
Rep. Karen Bass, California Democrat and the chairwoman of the panel’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, also signed the letter.
The Democrats called for the release of low-level, medically comprised, elderly and pregnant prisoners in Federal Bureau of Prisons custody before reviewing other cases. They said the $2.2 trillion relief bill signed by President Trump last Friday gives the Justice Department the authority to release prisoners to home confinement.
Mr. Barr last week directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider home confinement for prisoners at high risk for the virus. However, he cautioned that anyone released would need to be quarantined for at least 14 days in prison.
“We want to be sure our institutions don’t become petri dishes, and it doesn’t spread rapidly through an institution — but we have protocols that are designed to stop that and we are using all the tools we have,” Mr. Barr told reporters.
The Judiciary Committee joins a group of bipartisan senators and sentencing reform advocates who have called on Mr. Barr to release federal prisoners.
Some states and municipalities have already released inmates because of the pandemic. Los Angeles County released more than 600 inmates early, Cleveland let go over 200, and other localities are mulling similar measures.
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