Compassionate Release FAQs

Compassionate Release FAQ # 1

1. What is compassionate release ?

Compassionate release is the term given to the process that allows federal prisoners to apply for a reduction in sentence based on “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. There are many different “extraordinary and compelling” reasons that may warrant compassionate release. For instance, prisoners often seek compassionate release based on: (a) terminal medical conditions; (b) health problems; (c) the need to care for a close family member; (d) poor medical care by prison officials; (e) changes in the law; and (f) other reasons that might be considered “extraordinary and compelling” by a judge.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 2

2. What laws or policies govern compassionate release?

Federal compassionate release is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), federal court decisions, U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 1B1.13, and Bureau of Prisons Program Statement 5050.50, Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 3

3. Who qualifies for compassionate release?

Federal compassionate release is available to federal prisoners who can show “extraordinary and compelling reasons” in support of a sentence reduction. The statutory “extraordinary and compelling” standard is purposefully vague, leaving courts in most parts of the United States to decide for themselves what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling.” Judges, however, are guided by federal case law and U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, among other factors, when deciding whether to reduce a sentence on compassionate release grounds.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 4

4. Why are there different standards for compassionate release?

There is only one overarching criteria for compassionate release: “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.

Nonetheless, if you are hoping for the Bureau of Prisons to ask for compassionate release, the BOP’s decision to do so is guided by its own internal policies.

In most cases, the BOP’s internal policies are largely irrelevant because the prisoner–not the BOP–asks the court for compassionate release.

Once a motion for compassionate release is filed with the court, the judge will review that motion (whether filed by the BOP or a prisoner) consistent with federal court decisions, look at U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, and take into account other statutory factors.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 5

5. What is the BOP medical category criteria?

The federal prison system uses its own set of criteria for compassionate release. The BOP’s compassionate release rules do not bind the discretion of federal courts deciding compassionate release motions. However, the BOP will not move for compassionate release on behalf of a prisoner unless its internal policy requirements are met.

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.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 6

6. What is the BOP 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.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 7

7. What is the BOP 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.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 8

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

The inmate or their lawyer needs prepare a written compassionate release request. The request should include relevant background information (e.g., medical condition, family circumstances, age and sentence data, etc.), what specific provision they are filing under, their proposed released address, and, if granted, their release plan. This request is then filed with the inmate’s Warden.

The prisoner must wait 30 calendar days after submitting the request to the Warden before filing a motion for compassionate release with the courts.

If the Warden does not respond to the request within 30 calendar days, the prisoner may proceed to court.

There is no need to challenge the denial of request to the Warden through the BOP’s administrative remedy program before filing with the court.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 9

9. 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.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 10

10. 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

Compassionate Release FAQ # 11

11. What happens if the Warden denies a compassionate release 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.

However, the prisoner is not required to resort to the administrative remedy program before filing a motion for compassionate release with the court.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 12

12. What happens if the Warden grants a compassionate release 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.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 13

13. 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 a compassionate release motion him or herself.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 14

14. What happens if the Director approves the petition?

If the Director approves the request, 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 (most typically) reducing the prisoner’s sentence to time served. The inmate is then released from custody as soon as transportation and medical care can be arranged.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 15

15. Do U.S. District Court judges ever deny compassionate release motions filed by the BOP?

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

However, courts have denied many compassionate release motions filed by prisoners (not by the BOP).

Compassionate Release FAQ # 16

16. What are the chances the BOP will actually ask for 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.

The vast majority of compassionate release motions that are granted by courts today are filed by prisoners (or through their counsel).

Compassionate Release FAQ # 17

17. What is 1B1.13?

U.S. Sentencing Guideline 1B1.13 is a policy statement adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Section 1B.13 is supposed to identify what “extraordinary and compelling” reasons warrant compassionate release.

Compassionate Release FAQ # 18

18. Is 1B1.13 binding?

U.S.S.G. 1B1.13 is binding on motions from the Director of the BOP.

However, in all federal circuits (except for the 11th Circuit), 1B1.13 does not restrict the power of federal courts to grant compassionate release.

Because of this, courts are free to determine (subject to case law) what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.

However, come November 1, 2023, an amendment to 1B1.13 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will take effect if not disallowed by Congress. If enacted, compassionate release on broader grounds will be available to all federal prisoners throughout the United States.


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