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Compassionate Release Statistics

In 1984, Congress passed legislation authorizing federal courts to reduce a federal prisoner's sentence when "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances exist to justify early release. The law directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to develop policy as to such circumstances. Unfortunately, the law also limited who can bring a motion for compassionate release. In short, only one person can bring such a motion: the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This article discusses compassionate release statistics in an effort to help those affected understand the reality of the federal compassionate release program.

Given the fact that the Bureau of Prisons is an agency that exists solely to keep prisoners confined within its institutions, it is not surprising to learn that the Bureau is extraordinarily stingy when it comes to filing motions requesting the compassionate release of a prisoner. What's more, when it comes to compassionate release, the Bureau seems to be indifferent to negative PR and even harsh words from Senators and the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

 The 2013 Office of Inspector General Report

In 2013, the OIG issued a report based on a review of the BOP's handling of compassionate release requests from 2006 through 2011. The OIG wasCompassionate Release Statistics candid in its findings: "The BOP does not properly manage the compassionate release program, resulting in inmates who may be candidates for release not being considered." The numbers tell the story:

  • Only the 208 requests that were referred to the Director by Wardens were reviewed by the OIG because the Bureau had no way of knowing how many total applications were received by the Wardens.
  • 206 of the 208 requests referred to the Director were for medical reasons, either a terminal or debilitating illness.
  • The Director approved 142 (68 percent) and denied 38 (18 percent).
  • Of the 38 that were denied, 22 (58 percent) were denied due to the seriousness of the prisoner's offense or criminal history.
  • 28 (13 percent) of the 206 medical applicants died while waiting for a response from the Director. 

The BOP's Response to the August 2017 Letter from 12 Senators

On August 3, 2017, twelve U.S. Senators wrote a letter to (former) BOP Director Thomas Kane in which they expressed concern over the Bureau's administration of the compassionate release program. The Senators requested data from the BOP as to its handling of the program. In response to the request, the BOP supplied the following data for the years 2014 to 2018:

These compassionate release statistics show how rarely the Bureau of Prisons grants relief.

The 2018 New York Times Report

Federal data obtained by The Marshall Project and The New York Times was examined for a March 7, 2018 report appearing in the Times. According to the data, which covered 2013 to 2017:

  • 5,400 compassionate release applications were received by Wardens.
  • Approximately 300 applications, or 6 percent, were approved by the Director.
  • 50 applications (2 percent) for non-medical release were approved by the Director.
  • The Bureau did not explain why the data provided to the Times did not match which was given to the twelve Senators.

What Do These Compassionate Release Statistics Mean?

The long and short of every piece of data that has been made available is that the BOP is not doing its job when it comes to compassionate release. The Bureau appears to be operating under the misapprehension that it is within its rights to determine whether a prisoner's circumstances warrant a sentence reduction. As the Senators pointed out, this is not the case. " It is the appropriate purview of the sentencing court to determine if a defendant's circumstances warrant a sentencing reduction under compassionate release," wrote the Senators.

Pursuant to federal law, the Bureau's actual position is an administrative one. If the criteria established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission are met, the Bureau has the simple administrative task of filing the motion in federal court. Regardless of this, the Bureau seems more interested in locking up their inmates than allowing sentencing courts to consider the vast majority of compassionate release cases.

If you have other questions about compassionate release statistics, please don't hesitate to contact us at 802-444-4357.

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