Norton Urges Department of Justice to Apply First Step Act to D.C. Inmates in Federal Bureau of Prisons, as Congress Intended, in Light of Coronavirus
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to apply the First Step Act (Act), which was signed into law in 2018, to D.C. Code felons, especially in light of the coronavirus. The Act provides new best practices, such as increased access to compassionate release, for inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Norton worked to get included in the Act a provision making clear that it applies to individuals convicted of felonies under D.C. law, the only local inmates housed by BOP, not only inmates convicted under federal law. However, despite repeated requests by Norton, DOJ and BOP have yet to apply the Act to D.C. Code felons.
“In light of the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, it is more important than ever that the First Step Act be interpreted to apply to D.C. Code felons, as Congress intended,” Norton said. “Prisons can easily become incubators for the virus. The Department of Justice has delayed for more than a year formally deciding whether the Act applies to D.C. Code felons. Whatever the final decision, the coronavirus emergency should allow for early release for eligible D.C. Code felons in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, just like it allows for federal offenders in BOP custody.”
Norton’s letter follows:
March 22, 2020
The Honorable William Barr
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Attorney General Barr:
In light of the coronavirus, I write urgently to request that the Department of Justice (DOJ) issue guidance to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that the First Step Act (Act) applies to District of Columbia Code felons, as Congress clearly intended. Such a determination is particularly urgent during this pandemic, as prisons are high-risk environments for transmissions. D.C. Code felons who would otherwise be eligible for release under the Act had they been convicted of a federal crime can be released. This is the fourth time that I have written either to DOJ or BOP requesting that an opinion be issued on the applicability of the Act to D.C. Code felons since the Act was enacted in December 2018. BOP is not applying the Act to D.C. Code felons in direct contravention of congressional intent. In light of the national health crisis, it is more important than ever that there be an immediate formal decision on this issue.
It was clearly Congress’ intent when it included in the definition of “prisoner” in the Act – “a person in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons,” – that the Act would apply not only to inmates convicted of federal crimes, but also to inmates convicted of D.C. crimes. Inasmuch as BOP may have increased requests for the benefits of the Act, including compassionate release, because of the coronavirus, it is vital that DOJ recognizes that the Act applies to D.C. Code felons as Congress intended.
I request that you respond, in writing, to this letter within five days.
Eleanor Holmes Norton