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Recent Developments in Compassionate Release

Congress authorized the early release of federal prisoners for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The statute directs the Bureau of Prisons to review prisoner applications for a reduction in sentence and, when certain criteria are met, to move the sentencing court for a reduction. The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) sets the "extraordinary and compelling" criteria. This page discusses recent developments in compassionate release.

Reforming a Broken Compassionate Release System

In 2013, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General issued a report which found that the BOP has systematically failed to present courts with qualifying compassionate release motions. Following the report, the Recent Developments in Compassionate ReleaseBOP issued new policy that ostensibly expanded its criteria for compassionate release. However, the BOP's failure to bring qualifying motions continued.

In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released new guidelines for evaluating compassionate release applications. The amended guidelines created four categories that should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction in sentence. The guidelines established that prisoners may be eligible for compassionate release for reasons related to medical conditions, age, family circumstances or "other" extraordinary and compelling reasons.

While the USSC guidelines are not binding on the BOP, the Commission took the extraordinary step of encouraging the Director of the BOP to more liberally exercise his authority to present reduction in sentence motions when the criteria are met.

In August 2017, twelve U.S. Senators wrote a letter to the Director of the BOP in which they requested that the agency take a hard look at its use of compassionate release. The Senators noted that the elderly population in federal prison is growing and that incarceration costs for this demographic are substantially greater than for the general population. Pointing out that the BOP's sole function in dealing with compassionate release requests is to forward them to the sentencing court when the prisoner qualifies, the Senators expressed their concern that the Bureau was not fulfilling its role.

In response to pressure from the Sentencing Commission and Congress, the BOP has done nothing. Program Statement 5050.49, Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence, which governs compassionate release procedures in the Bureau, has not been updated since March 2015. Approximately 10 percent of all applications for compassionate release reviewed by the Bureau are deemed appropriate for a motion in the sentencing court. Between 2014 and January 2018, 81 prisoners died while waiting for a response from the Bureau. The compassionate release statistics tell a story that the Bureau of Prisons would rather not be told.

A New Path Forward: Direct Court Intervention

Given the Bureau's inability to carry out the simple administrative task of forwarding applications to a court, federal lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow prisoners themselves, in some circumstances, to petition the court for a reduction in sentence for compassionate releases. The First Step Act would, among many other things, allow prisoners to apply directly to a court when the Bureau has failed to respond to an application within 30 days, or after a prisoner has exhausted administrative remedies. These are very promising recent developments in compassionate release.

Given the belief of many stakeholders, including the U.S. Sentencing Commission, that courts are best suited to make these determinations, such a change makes sense. The Bureau of Prisons, after all, exists solely because there are people in federal prison. Expecting an agency whose lifeblood consists of prisoners to do anything to eliminate prisoners is not realistic.

Seeking Outside Help

The law and policy around compassionate release are in flux. Because the process is complicated and the stakes are high, any prisoner considering a compassionate release application should consult with a qualified attorney who is well versed in the intricacies of compassionate release. At the Law Offices of Brandon Sample, we have the experience and understanding to guide you through the process.

To learn more about recent developments in compassionate release or to receive assistance with securing a compassionate release, call us at 802-444-4357.

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