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Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Compassionate release of federal prisoners is authorized by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). The statute contemplates early release of certain prisoners when "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances exist. Only a federal judge can order early release, and only the Bureau of Prisons can ask the district court to grant compassionate release. This page discusses the role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in developing policies concerning compassionate release.

When Congress passed the compassionate release law, it directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) to develop policy statements defining the Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commissionextraordinary and compelling circumstances that might justify release. The USSC, which is an independent federal commission within the judicial branch, developed compassionate release policy statements, and has amended them several times since their initial promulgation. The current policy statements are codified in § 1B1.13 of the Sentencing Guidelines.

The most recent amendments were passed in April 2016 and went into effect on November 1, 2016. The amendments strengthened and broadened the criteria for compassionate release . These particular amendments resulted from testimony, public commentary and multiple reports from the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General indicating that the BOP has failed to use its authority to recommend compassionate release properly.

The guidance provided in the USSC policy statement establishes four categories of criteria that the BOP should consider "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances justifying compassionate release: "Medical Condition of the Defendant," "Age of Defendant," "Family Circusmstances," and "Other Reasons." Bureau of Prisons program statements generally track these circumstances.

Perhaps most significant in the USSC amendment is the addition of a new application note that encourages the Director of the BOP to file a motion requesting early release if the prisoner meets any of the circumstances described in the Guideline. The note quite clearly came in response to USSC dissatisfaction with the Bureau's handling of compassionate release, and reads as follows:

"A reduction under this policy statement may be granted only upon the motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). The Commission encourages the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to file such a motion if the defendant meets any of the circumstances set forth in [the four categories established] in Application Note 1. The court is in a unique position to determine whether the circumstances warrant a reduction (and, if so, the amount of reduction), after considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and the criteria set forth in this policy statement, such as the defendant's medical condition, the defendant's family circumstances, and whether the defendant is a danger to the safety of any other person in the community."

The USSC position on the BOP's handling of compassionate release requests was made even more clear in official commentary to the 2016 Amendments. The Commission noted that while its policy statement is not binding on the Bureau, it is intended to encourage the Director of the BOP to file a compassionate release motion when the circumstances warrant such relief.

The Sentencing Commission is in a difficult position when it comes to compassionate release. Congress directed the Commission to develop policy for the Bureau to use, but the Commission must sit idly by while the BOP does nothing to implement the policy. Moreover, the Commission knows that the federal court system is in a much better position to make compassionate release determinations, but cannot do anything to get such motions before the court.

If you have questions about the role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the federal compassionate release process or are interested in hiring an attorney to assist you, please call 802-444-4357.

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