Chairman Nadler Statement for Hearing on "The First Step Act, The Pandemic, and Compassionate Release: What Are the Next Steps for the Federal Bureau of Prisons?"
Washington, January 21, 2022
Washington, D.C. - Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, during a Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security hearing on "The First Step Act, The Pandemic, and Compassionate Release: What Are the Next Steps for the Federal Bureau of Prisons?":
"Thank you, Madam Chair, for holding this very important hearing to discuss implementation of the First Step Act and ongoing efforts by the Bureau of Prisons to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its use of Compassionate Release.
"Three years ago, we passed a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation—the First Step Act of 2018—which truly was a step forward in our efforts to reform our criminal justice system. That law reforms—in modest, but important, ways—federal criminal sentencing and various aspects of the federal prison system.
"Those critical provisions are intended to improve federal prison conditions, reduce the federal prison population, and reduce recidivism among offenders released from BOP custody through evidence-based practices.
"Now, although COVID-19 certainly contributed to the delays, we should recognize that BOP was slow to implement this legislation long before the first inmate tested positive for COVID. I am pleased, however, that BOP and DOJ have now taken significant steps toward the implementation of PATTERN—the risk and needs assessment tool used to determine inmates’ eligibility to participate in recidivism-reducing programming, which can help inmates earn credits towards early release.
"It has also completed an assessment of BOP inmates under this tool and a determination of how these credits will be calculated.
"The Biden Administration has also made important improvements to the implementation of the First Step Act in the past year. For example, just a few days ago, the Administration significantly revised how it will calculate the invaluable Earned Time Credits using a much more reasonable and less restrictive formula than originally proposed. This new policy has the potential to lead to the release of thousands of inmates who are unlikely to reoffend.
"While I am heartened by this decision, many questions remain about whether the PATTERN tool, which holds so much power to determine an inmate’s eligibility to receive Earned Time Credits, has been sufficiently validated by independent experts. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on this important question.
"I also look forward to examining the BOP’s troubling response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its inability to protect inmates and staff adequately.
"Since the pandemic began, more than 50,000 BOP inmates have been infected with COVID-19. This month, in just a five-day span, more than 3,000 more inmates in our federal prison system tested positive—and two more inmates died from complications due to COVID, bringing the total number of inmate deaths from the virus to 279. The number of staff members to die of COVID-19 remains at seven—although that seven is seven too many.
"These numbers are quite frightening, and we must do more to protect individuals in custody—individuals who are placed in our care—particularly those at high risk of severe COVID-19 complications, even if that means releasing them. Nobody deserves to die from this disease, and we have a duty to ensure basic protections for those in our custody.
"Unfortunately, in the years since the pandemic began, BOP has failed to make sufficient use of the authority granted to it under the CARES Act to place certain prisoners on home confinement earlier than previously permitted by statute, leaving many inmates unnecessarily at risk of illness or death.
"After the Trump Administration ordered that people released under the CARES Act would have to return to custody when the threat of COVID-19 has abated, I was pleased to see that Attorney General Garland wisely reversed this policy. Most of these individuals will now be allowed to remain out of custody and continue with the work of rebuilding their lives. This is a significant and appropriate change and I commend the Biden Administration for making this important move.
"Long before the pandemic, the CARES Act, or the First Step Act, BOP already had the power to petition for the release of any federal inmate if extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant, or if an inmate met several criteria.
"Despite this broad authority, called Compassionate Release, BOP has routinely chosen not to seek compassionate release for inmates. This is a wasted opportunity to deliver justice to people at low risk of recidivism and to the families and communities who would benefit from their return home.
"In light of the low recidivism rates among individuals released under the CARES Act and during the pandemic, I hope that BOP will begin to utilize Compassionate Release more often.
"I also hope that BOP will commit to improving the conditions at its facilities across the country. I am aware of particularly unacceptable conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn—conditions that long predate COVID-19. For example, in a frigid cold spell in early 2019, detainees there had no heat or electricity, and BOP officials had no plan in place to assure inmate safety in case of a power outage and no sense of urgency to address the problem.
"I, along with other Members, including Mr. Jeffries and Ms. Velazquez, toured the facility to see, first-hand, the terrible conditions. With the onset of the pandemic, we continued to get reports about inadequate treatment of those detained at the MDC. We must do better.
"That is why I am pleased to have Dr. Venters and Dr. Goodwin here today to discuss their observations while conducting on-site inspections of BOP facilities. I expect that you both will have helpful recommendations for what we can do moving forward to improve the conditions at BOP facilities, to help inmates gain ask to treatment and programming, and to protect the most vulnerable in custody.
"We are also fortunate to have our other distinguished guests here to speak with us about some of the critical issues I have discussed. I look forward to hearing from each of you, and I yield back the balance of my time."