Compassionate Release Federal Prison
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was signed into law more than three decades ago. Congress, as part of the law, created the concept of compassionate release.
A federal prisoner can receive compassionate release only for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.
The Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) or the prisoner themselves can request compassionate release in federal prison. The prisoner’s original sentencing court makes the final decision on whether to reduce a sentence on compassionate release grounds.
This article focuses on compassionate release requests made or approved by the BOP. The BOP’s criteria for compassionate release is more stringent than what federal courts are allowed to consider. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the BOP’s policy as part of the overall compassionate release process.
Compassionate Release in Federal Prison – Program Statement 5050.50
The BOP’s internal policy on compassionate release in federal prison is found in Program Statement 5050.50, Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence: Procedures for Implementation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 3582 and 4205(g).
That policy statement lists three broad categories for compassionate release: (1) medical reasons; (2) non-medical circumstances; and (3) elderly.
Medical: Terminal or Debilitated Prisoners
The Bureau has determined that certain terminal medical conditions amount to extraordinary and compelling reasons that may justify compassionate release in federal prison. Generally, the prisoner must have been diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease that will lead to death within 18 months. While the BOP may consider the functional impairments of terminally ill prisoners, they are not dispositive to the final decision on whether to grant compassionate release in federal prison.
Read our Terminal Medical Condition page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Regulation and policy also allow for the compassionate release in federal prison of certain prisoners who suffer from a debilitated medical condition, but are not necessarily terminal. A prisoner must be completely disabled or confined to a bed or chair more than 50 percent of waking hours in order to qualify as debilitated. In addition to physical disabilities, the BOP shall consider cognitive impairments when reviewing a prisoner’s claim of a debilitated medical condition.
Read our Debilitated Medical Condition page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Non-Medical: Need to Care for a Child or Spouse/Partner
The death or incapacitation of the family member caregiver of a federal prisoner’s child may qualify as an extraordinary and compelling reason to grant compassionate release in some circumstances. As a rule, the caregiver must have either died or become completely incapable of caring for the child, who must be under eighteen. Additionally, the prisoner must be the only available family member caregiver. The Bureau will consider the best interests of the child when reviewing a prisoner’s claim of need to care for a child.
Read our Death or Incapacitation of the Family Member Caregiver page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Compassionate release in federal prison may also be granted when a federal prisoner’s spouse or registered partner becomes incapacitated and the prisoner would be their only available caregiver. The relationship must have been established before the prisoner’s arrest. The Bureau considers incapacitation to mean complete physical disability, such as when a spouse or partner cannot carry on self-care and is confined to a bed, or a severe cognitive deficit that has severely affected the spouse or partner’s mental capacity or ability to function.
Read our Incapacitation of a Spouse or Registered Partner page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Certain federal prisoners who have reached the age of 65 may be eligible for compassionate release. The Bureau will consider those who have served the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of their term of imprisonment for possible release. Ordinarily, an elderly person will not be eligible if they were sentenced for a crime of violence at age 60 or above.
Read our Elderly Inmates without a Medical Condition page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Alternatively, an elderly federal prisoner who is 70 years or older and has served 30 years or more of their imprisonment may be considered for compassionate release. Under this alternative, the prisoner’s crime must have been committed after November 1, 1987.
Read our “New Law” Elderly Inmates page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
The Bureau has established criteria for medical compassionate release specific to the elderly. In order to qualify for such consideration, a federal prisoner must meet all of the following criteria:
- Age 65 or older.
- Suffer from chronic or serious medical conditions related to the aging process.
- Experiencing diminished mental or physical health that diminishes the ability to function in a prison.
- Has no hope that conventional treatment will improve the mental or physical condition.
- Has served at least 50 percent of the sentence.
In addition to these criteria, the BOP will consider the age at which the offense was committed, whether the medical conditions existed at the time of offense, and whether the prisoner’s presentence report mentions the medical conditions.
Read our Elderly Inmates with Medical Conditions page for more information on this category of compassionate release.
Factors Considered in Evaluation of All Compassionate Release Federal Prison Categories
No matter what the extraordinary or compelling reason justifying compassionate release in federal prison, the Bureau will consider a host of factors when weighing a federal prisoner’s application. The factors are not weighted or exclusive, and include the following:
- The nature and circumstances of the offense.
- Criminal history.
- Comments from victims.
- Unresolved detainers.
- Supervised release violations.
- Institutional adjustment.
- Disciplinary infractions.
- Personal history from the presentence report.
- Length of sentence and time already served.
- Prisoner’s age now, and at the time of offense.
- Release plans.
- Whether release would minimize the severity of the offense.
Improving Your Chances of Compassionate Release Success
If you or a loved one are considering applying for compassionate release, it is highly recommended that you retain competent counsel who can ensure that you qualify and help put your best foot forward. Brandon Sample is an experienced attorney and understands the ins and outs of compassionate release.