U.S. has no plans to order inmates released in pandemic back to prison-official

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The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), which is operated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, is pictured, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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WASHINGTON, April 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has no immediate plans to send thousands of inmates released during the COVID-19 pandemic back to prison, but to prevent that from happening in the future, Congress needs to change the law, its head said Thursday.

"We're going to use good judgment and common sense and work within the law," said BOP Director Michael Carvajal in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting the agency has no desire to "arbitrarily" disrupt peoples' lives by forcing them to return to prison.

Last March, Congress authorized the Justice Department to declare an emergency so it could expand the pool of low-level, non-violent federal inmates who could qualify for home confinement, to contain COVID-19's spread throughout the federal prison system.

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In January, however, the department issued a legal opinion that once the emergency is lifted, the BOP will have no choice but to "recall prisoners in home confinement to correctional facilities" because the authority to send more people home was only temporary.

The memo would apply to about 4,000 of the roughly 7,400 inmates currently serving sentences on home confinement, Carvajal said.

Criminal justice reform advocacy groups and members of Congress in recent weeks have called on the White House and the Justice Department to rescind the memo, saying acting on it will destroy the lives of thousands of people who pose little public safety risk and have already landed jobs or returned to school and tried to reintegrate into society. read more

"If they can stay where they are, it's going to save the taxpayers a lot of money and it would also help people who aren't prone to re-offend and allows inmates to successfully re-enter society as productive citizens," ranking Republican Charles Grassley said on Thursday, noting that of the roughly 24,000 inmates who were released home since March 2020, only 151 had violated the terms of their release.

"The president recently extended the national emergency," Carvajal said. "There's no rush to bring these [inmates] back."

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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch Editing by Bernadette Baum

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