Compassionate Release : Frequently Asked

1. What is a compassionate release ?

Compassionate release is a mechanism for federal inmates to receive a reduction in sentence as a result of "extraordinary and compelling" reasons. If granted, the inmate's sentence is changed to time served and they are released from prison immediately.

2. What laws or policies govern compassionate release?

Federal compassionate release is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), U.S. Sentencing Guidelines § 1B1.13, 28 C.F.R. § 571.60 et seq and Bureau of Prisons Program Statement 5050.49, Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence.

3. Who qualifies for compassionate release?

Federal compassionate release is divided into three categories: medical, non-medical, and elderly. Each of these categories has its own strict criteria. Any federal prisoner who fulfills the criteria for any of the seven specific provisions can qualify for release.

4. What is the medical category criteria?

Inmates can qualify under either the Terminal Medical Condition category or the Debilitated Medical Condition.Under the terminal category, inmates must be diagnosed with a "terminal, incurable disease" and have a life expectancy of 18 months or less.

Under the debilitated category, inmates must suffer from an "incurable, progressive illness" or have suffered from a "debilitating medical condition from which they will not recover." In addition, the inmate must either be unable to engage in any self-care activities and be confined to a bed or chair, or be limited in self-care activities and be confined to a bed or chair more than 50% of waking hours.

5. What is the elderly category criteria?

This is divided into three groups: "New Law" Elderly Inmates, Elderly Inmates with Medical Condition, and Other Elderly Inmates.

The "New Law" Elderly Inmates category requires the inmate to have committed their offense on or after November 1, 1987, be 70 years of age or older, and have served 30 or more years.

The Elderly Inmates with Medical Condition category requires the inmate to be 65 or older, and suffering from chronic or serious medical conditions related to the aging process, including "deteriorating mental or physical health" that "substantially diminishes" their ability to function in a prison. Additionally, conventional medical treatments must not be able to substantially improve their "mental or physical condition," and they must have served at least half of their sentence.

The Other Elderly Inmates category requires the inmate to be 65 or older and have "served the greater of 10 years or 75%" of their prison sentence.

6. What is the non-medical category criteria?

This category is divided into two subcategories: Death or Incapacitation of the Family Member Caregiver and Incapacitation of a Spouse or Registered Partner.

The Death or Incapacitation of the Family Member Caregiver category permits incarcerated parents to be released in order to care for their children when the family member who was caring for the minor child has become incapacitated or died. For purposes of this provision, incapacitation can include a "severe injury" such as a car wreck or a "severe illness" such as cancer. The inmate's relationship must also be in the child's best interest.

The Incapacitation of a Spouse or Registered Partner category permits inmates to be released if their spouse (through marriage or common law marriage) or partner (through civil union or registered domestic partnership) becomes incapacitated as the result of a "serious injury," "debilitating physical illness," or "severe cognitive defect." In the case of injury or illness, the spouse or partner must be unable to carry on any self-care activities and be confined to a bed or chair.

7. How can a federal inmate seek a compassionate release?

The inmate needs to write a letter or other document which requests a compassionate release. In this request, the inmate should include relevant background information (e.g., medical condition, family circumstances, age and sentence data, etc.), what specific provision they are filing under, and, if granted, their release plan. This request is then filed with the inmate's Warden.

8. What does the Warden do upon receiving the request?

If the request is based on medical grounds, the Warden refers the request to the institution's Clinical Director for a medical summary and recommendation for the Warden's consideration. If the request is based on a non-medical or elderly inmate provision, this is not required. Regardless, the Warden evaluates the petition and makes a decision to approve or deny.

9. What is the Warden's decision based on?

For all compassionate release petitions, the Bureau considers the following elements:

  • Inmate's background
  • Type of compassionate release requested
  • Nature and circumstances of the inmate's offense
  • Criminal history
  • Comments from victims
  • Unresolved detainers
  • Supervised release violations
  • Institutional adjustment
  • Disciplinary infractions
What happens if the Warden denies the request?

If the Warden denies the request, the inmate will receive the rationale in writing and will then be permitted to appeal the denial through the Administrative Remedy Program. This notice will be furnished within 20 days of the denial. A denial does not preclude the inmate from refiling at a later date.

10. What happens if the Warden grants the request?

The compassionate release request, supporting documentation, and the Warden's recommendation are then forwarded to the Bureau's General Counsel who then comes to his or her own conclusion. If General Counsel also approves, then the request is forwarded to the Medical Director (if the request is based on a medical condition) or to the Associate Director, Correctional Programs Division (if based on a non-medical reason) for an opinion. The entire packet is then sent to the Director for review.

11. What happens if the Director denies the petition?

The Director's decision is the final agency decision. As such, it is not appealable. Note that a denial by the Director does not preclude the inmate from filing another compassionate release petition at a later date.

12. What happens if the Director approves the petition?

If the Director approves, the matter is forwarded to the U.S. Attorney in the district where the inmate was sentenced. This U.S. Attorney then moves the court for a reduction in sentence, which if granted, results in an order for time served. The inmate is then released from custody as soon as transportation and medical care can be arranged.

13. Do U.S. District Court judges ever deny such reduction in sentence motions?

Yes, but it is rare. There is very little case law on this due to it being so unusual.

14. What are the chances of actually receiving a compassionate release?

Sadly, very poor. As discussed in our Compassionate Release Statistics page, there is about a 6 percent chance of the BOP's Director granting the request. Between 2013 and 2017, the Bureau approved approximately 300 compassionate release petitions out of 5,400 requests. The vast majority of those approved (98 percent) were for medical reasons.

15. If I'm interested in pursuing compassionate release for myself or a loved one, what should I do?

A great first step is to contact us at the Law Offices of Brandon Sample. We have considerable experience with the Bureau of Prisons' compassionate release program and can help give you the best possible chance at successfully getting your loved one home.

If you have other questions that are not answered in our compassionate release FAQs, please call us at 802-444-4357.