Biden ‘exploring’ clemency for some prisoners amid COVID-19 pandemic

The White House confirmed that President Joe Biden is looking into clemency for certain non-violent prisoners released during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"President Biden is deeply committed to reducing incarceration and helping people successfully reenter society," the White House said in a statement. "As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated – and too many of those incarcerated are Black and Brown. That is why the President is exploring the use of his clemency power for individuals on CARES Act home confinement."

The White House added that Biden will start the process with a review of non-violent drug offenders on CARES Act home confinement with four years or less to serve.

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Clemency is the act of lessening the severity of punishment. According to the U.S. Constitution, a president has the will to issue reprieves or pardons regarding federal crimes except in cases of impeachment. 

Shortly after the pandemic started, the Federal Bureau of Prisons started to grant home confinement as an acceptable punishment at the urging of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. In January, the Department of Justice started allowing eligible prisoners to serve out the remainder of their punishment through home confinement as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act as a way to lessen the pandemic’s impact on prisons.

The DOJ’s move came after data revealed that one in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to 2020 data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

In the early days of the pandemic, testing within the BOP was limited, and staff at some prisons were told there was no need to test prisoners and they should just assume everyone had the coronavirus. The Justice Department’s inspector general found that at some facilities, like FCC Oakdale in Louisiana, which emerged as an early hot spot, prisoners who tested positive for the virus were left in their housing units for days without being isolated.

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The federal prison system was among the first government agencies to receive the coronavirus vaccine, though initial allotments of the vaccine was given to staff and not to inmates, even though sickened prisoners vastly outnumber sickened staff, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

According to BOP, there are more than 145,000 federal U.S. inmates. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 43,000 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 250 inmates have died from the virus. More than 220,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to the inmates and staff, according to the bureau. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.