A Justice Department effort to lock up more criminals in prisons instead of halfway houses hit a roadblock Tuesday when a federal judge said inmates already serving time in so-called community correction centers cannot be transferred to regular prisons.
The decision could affect more than 100 inmates the Justice Department wants moved out of halfway houses under a new policy to get tougher on nonviolent offenders.
At issue is a Justice Department order last month for the Bureau of Prisons to place fewer offenders in halfway houses -- where inmates can get weekend furloughs and frequent family visits -- and send more to federal prisons. Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry Thompson said the longtime practice of sentencing some felons to halfway houses was unlawful because it is not true confinement.
Thompson ordered the new policy to be applied with one exception: All halfway house prisoners with more than 150 days remaining on their sentences as of Dec. 20 would be transferred to a regular prison immediately.
Tuesday's ruling involved a Washington woman serving one year in a halfway house for forging checks. Because she exceeded the 150-day cutoff by 24 days, the Bureau of Prisons began proceedings to move her to a higher security prison.
She challenged the transfer, arguing it would unfairly alter the terms of her sentence. U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle agreed, saying application of the new policy retroactively is "fundamentally unfair and incompatible with due process."
Huvelle also called the 150-day cutoff "entirely irrational," saying the Bureau of Prisons provided no explanation for carving the exception into a rule that otherwise would apply only in future sentencing.
"This is a case in which the government's long-standing interpretation and application of the law ... affirmatively misled the court into imposing a particular sentence," Huvelle wrote.
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said the agency was still reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. Justice Department officials also had no comment.