Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Compassionate release is available to federal prisoners consistent with 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). According to that statute, early release of prisoners can be granted when “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances exist. Only a federal judge can order early release. A motion for compassionate release can be filed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the prisoner (often through a lawyer). This page discusses the role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in developing policies concerning compassionate release.

When Congress passed the compassionate release statute, 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 reasons for compassionate release, but are applied by the BOP more strictly.

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 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.

If you are interested in hiring an attorney to assist you or your loved one in federal prison with a compassionate release motion, please text us now at 202-990-2500 or submit a consultation request form.

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