Jails and prisons were always at obvious risk of becoming hotspots of COVID-19: large groups, close quarters, limited medical care, inadequate hygiene supplies, disproportionate rates of comorbidities — it's all there. By April of this year, at least one in three inmates of state and federal prisons were known to have been infected (the true number is undoubtedly higher because not every case is tested), and the reported death rate among inmates is one third higher than the national average.
That elevated risk is why the first pandemic omnibus bill, the CARES Act of March 2020, included a provision to allow select federal prisoners to be moved into home confinement as a decrowding measure. The result is a real-life experiment with compelling positive results.
The release program has stringent qualifications. It's only for low-level, nonviolent offenders with good behavior records in prison, a viable re-entry plan, and a good score on a recidivism risk assessment. (Prison officials could also use their discretion to preclude release.) Of about 155,000 federal inmates, only around 29,600 were moved to home confinement during the whole pandemic, and only around 7,500 are actively in home confinement now.
As Reason reports more than a year into this de facto experiment, "preliminary data are quite promising: The overwhelming majority of those released on home detention have not reoffended. Of the 28,881 prisoners allowed on home detention last year, only 151 individuals, less than 1 percent, violated the terms of their confinement. Only one person has committed a new crime."
That's quite a success. It's a strong case for expanded future use of home confinement, which saves money, doesn't separate families, and gives participants education and job opportunities they can't get in prison, which helps prevent recidivism. With numbers like these, the chief argument against home confinement — that it endangers the community — looks pretty weak.
In the near term, this data should also justify letting the several thousand still in CARES Act-initiated home confinement stay put when the pandemic ends. (As it is, Department of Justice guidance from January says they should go back to prison.) Legislation to that effect would be ideal, but, as the Reason writers note, President Biden could also commute their sentences to home confinement, letting them finish their term there without CARES Act authorization.