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Hundreds released from prison during pandemic may be sent back under Senate proposal


More than 3,000 people released from federal prison during the coronavirus pandemic have reason to worry this holiday season. They fear they could be returned to incarceration under a plan the Senate is considering. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: David McMaster has been out of prison for three years now. He's one of thousands of people sent to home confinement as the pandemic rampaged through federal prisons.

DAVID MCMASTER: I have reconnected and restored my relationships with friends and family, including my elderly parents, children and their spouses and my grandchildren.

JOHNSON: McMaster is 59 years old. He's a first-time offender convicted of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. But since his return to his community in Arizona, he got a good job in business development. And this past summer he got married.

MCMASTER: I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to make amends for my past decisions.

JOHNSON: But as early as next week, the Senate could vote to send McMaster and thousands of other people back to U.S. prisons. The resolution is sponsored by more than two dozen Republican lawmakers, led by Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn didn't want to speak on tape this week, but her spokesman told NPR the COVID national emergency is over, and criminals need to be behind bars, not on the streets.

CORY BOOKER: It is a kind of retribution that seems unnecessary.

JOHNSON: That's New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat.

BOOKER: The home confinement is working. They're employed. They're being productive citizens.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says of more than 13,000 people released to extended home confinement during the pandemic, only 27 people were rearrested or returned to prison custody for committing a new crime. Senator Blackburn's office says some of them face charges for assault, drugs and human smuggling. But analysts who follow the criminal justice system say the people released during the pandemic have a very low recidivism rate - less than 1%, much smaller than the rate for all federal prisoners, according to government statistics. Daniel Landsman is the vice president of policy for FAMM, a nonprofit that advocates for people in prison and their families.

DANIEL LANDSMAN: Our federal prison system is approaching crisis level with understaffing and its ability to properly care for and keep safe both the people who live and the people who work in their facilities.

JOHNSON: Landsman points out several recent incidents where high-profile people in prison have been stabbed by fellow inmates. They include prominent gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of child pornography, and Derek Chauvin, the former Minnesota police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd.

LANDSMAN: And so the thought of adding, in one fell swoop, 3,000 or so people back into the population when we're already struggling to adequately staff and keep people safe just doesn't make sense to me.

JOHNSON: This week the Biden administration threatened to veto the Senate proposal if it passes. The Office of Management and Budget pointed out that people on home confinement were convicted of nonviolent crimes, and they had served most of their sentences already. The OMB says the program has saved taxpayers millions of dollars since it's less expensive to monitor these people 24/7 while they're at home than to house them in federal prisons. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.