Background for the News Media

The federal compassionate release program enables eligible federal inmates to secure a reduction in sentence if certain restrictive criteria are met. While this usually consists of the inmate being diagnosed with a terminal condition and being allowed to go home for the remaining weeks or months of their lives, there are other categories that inmates can qualify under, even though such releases are rarely granted. In an effort to help the news media understand the federal compassionate release program, we present the following program background.

News Media Background: Legal Underpinnings of Federal Compassionate Release

Congress authorized compassionate release in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Codified at 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), the law allows the Federal Bureau of Prisons to ask a federal court to reduce a prisoner’s sentence for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. The United States Sentencing Commission drafted guidelines defining “extraordinary and compelling”reasons, which can be found in the United States Sentencing Guidelines § 1B1.13. The Bureau of Prisons promulgated regulations and policy in order to implement compassionate release. The regulations can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations, 28 C.F.R. § 571.60, et seq. Bureau policy is available in Program Statement 5050.49, Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence.

Criteria for Compassionate Release

The Bureau will consider compassionate release applications from prisoners suffering from a terminal  or debilitated medical condition, elderly prisoners (age 65 and older), and prisoners who have suddenly been cast into the role of sole family member caregiver for a minor child> or incapacitated spouse or registered partner. When reviewing an application for compassionate release, the Bureau will consider the specifics of the prisoner’s extraordinary and compelling situation. The Bureau will also consider the prisoner’s personal circumstances, such as his or her age, institutional adjustment and personal history. Significantly, Bureau officials will also consider the prisoner’s criminal history, including the nature of the prisoner’s crime, length of sentence and whether early release would minimize the severity of the offense. Victim commentary is also sought out.

More background on this can be provided to members of the news media.

Compassionate Release Process

Compassionate release in the Bureau of Prisons is procedure-driven. A prisoner must first apply to the Warden, who may convene a committee of correctional workers to consider the application. The Warden has substantial discretion in this matter. If the Warden approves, he forwards the application along with a packet of information and documentation to BOP General Counsel. If the General Counsel approves, he will seek out the opinion of the Medical Director (for applications based on a medical issue) or the Assistant Director, Correctional Programs Division (for non-medical situations). The General Counsel then forwards his approval and this opinion to the Director of the BOP, who makes a final decision.

When the Director approves an application, he or she will ask the U.S. Attorney for the prisoner’s sentencing jurisdiction to file a motion requesting a sentence reduction. The court will then hold a hearing and either grant or deny the motion. If the motion is granted, the prisoner will be released once his or her release plans are finalized.

It is important to note that the federal compassionate release law only permits the Bureau of Prisons to request a reduction in sentence. A prisoner has no right or authority to request compassionate release from a court directly. However, legislation has been introduced that would allow a prisoner to petition the court directly if the Bureau drags its feet or improperly denies an application. The Bureau is known to do exactly that.

By contacting us we can provide more background for the news media.

Compassionate Release Statistics

The statistics on compassionate release are startling. In a 2013 report, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General found that between 2006 and 2011, 13 percent of the federal prisoners whose requests had been approved by the Warden died while waiting for a decision by the Director. Moreover, data reviewed by The New York Times indicated that between 2013 and 2017, the Bureau approved only 6 percent of the 5,400 applications submitted by federal prisoners. Almost as many as were approved during this period died while awaiting a decision.

Compassionate release makes fiscal and moral sense, and does not decrease public safety. The elderly are, by far, the fastest growing population in federal prison, expected to represent 28 percent of the total population by 2019. Incarceration costs for the elderly are nearly double the cost for general population prisoners. Much of that cost comes in the form of health care, which is a huge part of the BOP’s budget. The BOP spent $1.1 billion on health care in 2015 alone.

Moreover, it is well-established that as age increases, recidivism rates decrease. Incarcerated individuals aged 50 and older have a 15 percent recidivism rate, as compared to a 41 percent rate for the general population. And those who have been granted compassionate release have an extraordinarily low re-arrest rate of 3.5 percent.

News Media Interviews and Commentary

We at the Law Offices of Brandon Sample have considerable experience with the federal compassionate release program, having successfully represented several clients who received reductions in sentence. If any members of the news media are in need of a source, quote, or an explanation of the process, please feel free to contact us. We have experience with the media and are able to provide prompt responses and work with publication deadlines. If members of the news media need more background, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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