The Elderly Inmate Dilemma
Nearly every state and federal prison in the United States is now facing a steady rise in elderly inmate populations. Prisoners who age behind bars do so at an accelerated rate. Oftentimes, inmates find themselves diagnosed with illnesses that someone twice their age would suffer from. Although both the federal government and forty-five states have now implemented a compassionate release program, it is often underused or outright ignored.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, Virginia’s elderly inmate population has grown by nearly 20% since 1990. Now, prison systems across the nation–including the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)–are facing a similar rise in elderly inmates. And with a rise in elderly inmates comes a desperate need to address the lack of compassionate releases.
Compassionate Releases are Far from Compassionate.
When Congress eliminated parole for federal prisoners in 1984, it provided an alternative option. Congress created the compassionate release procedure where inmates must demonstrate “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to qualify. The idea is that, at some point, it becomes unjust to continue confining a prisoner. When those cases arise, compassionate release procedures can provide an ethical solution.
When Congress eliminated parole for federal prisoners in 1984, it provided an alternative, albeit a more restrictive way for courts to release inmates. Inmates must demonstrate “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to qualify for compassion release. The idea is that, at some point, it may become “inequitable” to continue holding certain people in prison. Compassionate release provides a way to let inmates pass on in the care and comfort of their loved ones.
Although a practical idea in theory, this form of release is far more complicated in practice. The process takes an enormous amount of time, and suffers from high denial rates – making the process anything but compassionate. According to a 2018 report by the Marshall Project and the New York Times, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approved only 6 percent of 5,400 compassionate release requests between 2013 and 2017. Of those who applied, 266 died while awaiting a decision.
Outside of the BOP, each individual state has their own compassionate release criteria. California, for example, requires inmates to be completely incapacitated or have less than six months to live to be eligible. This is problematic, especially when the application process takes months to complete.
The states have their own criteria for the compassionate release of inmates. California, for example, requires inmates to be completely incapacitated or have less than six months to live to be eligible. This in itself can be problematic when the application process takes months to complete.
Compassionate Release Decisions Must Come Faster for Older Inmates.
The Monterey Bay Justice Project reported that in a 12-month period between 2016 and 2017, 53 qualified inmates applied for early release. Six were eventually approved. Reverend Keith Knauf, director of Pastoral Care in California’s only correctional hospice unit, said, “We had six granted but some died before release.”
A 2015 study called “The United States Compassionate and Geriatric Release Laws” found only five states do not have any statutory provisions for health or age-related early releases. Recently, Congress passed the First Step Act, in part to return the compassionate release process to what it had intended in 1984. Prisoners may now directly petition the courts if the BOP denies their applications.
It remains unclear how effective the First Step Act will be in relieving federal prisons of terminally ill or otherwise debilitated inmates. At the ends of their lives, even prisoners have families who deserve some consideration as they deal with the failing health and death of a loved one.
Although the new law might help make compassionate release more attainable, the process remains complicated. If you or a loved one are considering petitioning for early release, contact the Law Offices of Brandon Sample. We specialize in post-conviction relief and have experienced attorneys who would like to help.
Src: Matthew T. Mangion “MANGINO: Few Prisoners Benefit from Compassionate Release“, 12 March 2018