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As Coronavirus Strikes Prisons, Schatz And Durbin Introduce New Bill To Improve Compassionate Release Process And Protect Public Health

Prisons Across The Country Have Reported High Infection Rates, Putting The Incarcerated, Correctional Officers, Medical Staff, Communities At Risk

WASHINGTON – As the rapid spread of the coronavirus overwhelms prisons across the country, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) today introduced new legislation that would accelerate the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) approval process for compassionate release during a public health emergency. Authorized under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which also eliminated parole for federal prisoners, compassionate release gives people incarcerated in federal prisons an opportunity to appeal for early release for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, including advanced age and terminal illness.

“People who are eligible for compassionate release are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and they are needlessly being put at risk because the process takes too long,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill will help speed up the approval process so that sick and elderly who qualify for compassionate release get it.”

“Ensuring the health and safety of every inmate and BOP staff member is the moral responsibility of the federal government. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has failed to meet this challenge, so Congress must take immediate action to ensure more vulnerable inmates are transferred to home confinement,”
said Senator Durbin. “The Emergency GRACE Act is a commonsense measure we can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons and save lives.”

Prisons are designed to house people in tight quarters, making social distancing impossible, which can cause infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, to spread easily and quickly. According to recent reports, the prison infection rate of COVID-19 is more than 150 percent greater than the general population. The virus has already infected thousands of incarcerated individuals and prison staff across the country. While this is concerning for prison populations, broader communities around prisons are also put at risk as correctional officers and medical staff return home from work every day to their families and local communities.

The Emergency GRACE Act would:

  • Allow an individual to petition the federal court directly during a public health emergency, rather than wait for BOP to act within 30 days (which the GRACE Act created for compassionate release);
  • Direct BOP to identify compassionate release cases, and to release relevant medical records to individuals, their lawyers, and the court;
  • Create a presumption of a sentence reduction for compassionate release cases;
  • Allow the court to provide counsel for individuals without representation;
  • Create a process for temporary supervised release, furlough, or transfer;
  • Allow an individual to access Medicaid up to 30 days of their release, ensuring that they will be able to sign up for and have access to healthcare coverage post-release;
  • Direct BOP to improve their testing of all incarcerated people and staff, limit the spread of the coronavirus, and release relevant information to attorneys and families; and
  • Provide $50 million for state prison systems through the Byrne-JAG program to increase state prison testing and use of compassionate release or elderly/medical parole.

The bill is also cosponsored by U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Companion legislation in the House of Representatives will be introduced by U.S. Representative Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).

The bill has been endorsed by the Federal Public and Community Defenders, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, American Bar Association, FAMM, NAACP, International CURE, Center for Law and Social Policy, FreedomWorks, Due Process Institute, and #cut50.

Schatz authored the original bipartisan GRACE Act which streamlined the compassionate release process. It was signed into law in 2018.