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New DOJ guidance: Federal prisoners up for coronavirus-related release must have served 50% of sentence

Guidelines could affect high-profile inmates like Paul Manafort.

The Department of Justice has issued new guidelines to the federal prison system requiring that prisoners eligible for release to home confinement amid the coronavirus outbreak must have served at least 50% of their prison sentence, according to a Bureau of Prisons memo obtained by ABC News.

The updated guidance was shared with federal prisons across the country Monday, according to sources familiar with it. Inside some facilities sources described to ABC News confusion over the department’s new guidelines, especially since some of the wheels were already in motion for some releases.

While the DOJ guidance is technically not a directive, sources familiar with the matter say it is being taken as such. It could call into question the fate of many prisoners who had expected to be released to home confinement prior to the updated recommendations.

In a statement, the Justice Department told ABC News it "confirmed to BOP this afternoon that the BOP has discretion under the Attorney General's Memoranda on March 26 and April 3 regarding which home confinement cases are appropriate for review in order to fight the spread of the pandemic. BOP will proceed expeditiously consistent with that confirmation."

One high-profile inmate whose future could change because of the new guidance is Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman. Manafort's attorneys wrote to the Bureau of Prisons earlier this month asking for him to be released to home confinement. His attorneys have not yet received a formal response to their request.

Sources close to Manafort believed he would have a good chance of being released based on the initial guidance announced publicly by the Department of Justice, but now his fate appears more unclear.

Manafort, 71, is only at the beginning of a more than seven-year sentence in a federal correctional institution in central Pennsylvania for charges related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He was found guilty of tax fraud and conspiracy and was sentenced by a federal judge in March 2019. He was slated to be released from prison November 4, 2024. The charges stemmed from his work related to Ukraine between 2006 and 2015.

Attorney General Bill Barr’s initial directive encouraged the federal prison system to increase the use of home confinement for prisoners deemed in the “at risk” categories for coronavirus.

In a phone interview with ABC News late last month, Barr stressed that there would be significant limits on what would make prisoners eligible for release to home confinement, noting that they could not be convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses -- which makes up roughly 40% of the over-60 population.

"My main interest is making sure that they're safe to the community and that the situation they're going into is likely to be safer than staying where they are where they have ready access to doctors and we can keep them in isolation," Barr said at the time.

Former New York Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who tested positive for coronavirus, and who was expected to be released from prison is now unlikely to be granted release to home confinement under the new guidelines, according to a Tuesday court filing in the Southern District of New York. Skelos was convicted of bribery and extortion and had served approximately 30% of his sentence.

On Monday the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York involved in another case wrote in a letter to a U.S. District Judge that the Bureau of Prisons had informed them that DOJ had issued new guidance on releasing prisoners to home confinement, but added in a footnote that they had not yet seen a copy of the guidance.

"Based on the new guidance, the BOP anticipates that Stahl, who has served approximately 23% of his sentence, will not be eligible for home-confinement placement at this time," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman wrote, referring to Lewis Stahl, who had been sentenced to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges in 2018 and already approved for release.

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