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Sixth Circuit Reverses Compassionate Release Grant: Bass

The Sixth Circuit reverses a compassionate release indicating that the district court used the wrong legal standard.

Bass' Crime and Life Sentence

Bass was the leader of a drug organization that sold cocaine base in Michigan and Ohio.  The organization engaged in violence to achieve its goals.  Bass ultimately killed his half-brother to “capture his brother’s portion of the drug business.”  Bass shot and killed another person with the help of his half-brother. 

A jury found Bass guilty of conspiracy to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and fifty or more grams of cocaine base.  The jury also found him guilty of firearms murder during or in relation to a drug trafficking crime pursuant to 18 USC 924(j) for one of the above-mentioned murders but not the other.  Bass was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Bass' Compassionate Release Filing

Bass filed for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582 citing the covid pandemic.  He claimed that as a 51-year-old African-American male that was suffering from morbid obesity that he faced a higher risk of serious illness from the virus while incarcerated.  The government indicated that while his obesity created a situation where he experienced extraordinary and compelling circumstances, he was still a danger to the community under USSG 1B1.13 and that the 3553(a) factors weighed against his release. 

“While the motion was pending, one of Bass’s surviving victims filed an anonymous statement with the court, writing that Bass ‘should not be released from jail’ because he had ‘an evil mind to do what he did” and was “a threat to society.’”  Bass submitted supplemental briefing that showed that there were 167 active COVID-19 cases at his prison at the time of the briefing, constituting 20% of the inmate population.  He also submitted supplemental briefing that indicated that he was a low risk of recidivism under the PATTERN test. 

The District Court Grants Bass' Compassionate Release

The district court granted Bass' compassionate release.  The court found that there was a high risk of serious illness for Bass due to his obesity and that the high rate of infection at his prison.  He court also indicated that Bass’ record of rehabilitation over twenty-two years of incarceration “significantly mitigated” the government’s concern of Bass’s danger to the community and high risk of recidivism. 

“Pointing to Bass’s troubled upbringing, the court concluded that twenty-two years in prison was sufficient punishment for the crimes he had committed.  The district court emphasized Bass’s life coaching activities and the testimony from family members demonstrating his personal growth, remorse, and commitment to his family.” 

“The court further stressed that the reduction was appropriate to avoid a sentencing disparity between Bass and his twenty-one codefendants, including his half-brother Cornelius Webb, who was convicted of second-degree murder in state court and sentenced to 25-45 years in prison, but was released on parole after serving over eighteen years.”  Further, at a hearing on the motion in October of 2020, the district court stated “the district court stated that “for purposes of this hearing, this hearing is more like the trial Judge, that is me, sitting as a Parole Board.”

The government appealed. 

The Sixth Circuit Reversed


The district court noted that, of Bass’s twenty-one codefendants, none was sentenced to life in prison like Bass, and the murder charges against nine of the codefendants were dismissed entirely.  The court emphasized that only one codefendant, Cornelius Webb, was convicted of and sentenced for murder.  Id. The federal charges against Webb were dropped, and he was convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan state court and sentenced to 25-45 years in prison, but was released on parole after serving eighteen years. 

But the Sixth Circuit pointed out that the district court applied the wrong legal standard in its analysis of this factor:

“We have explained ... that this factor concerns national disparities between defendants with similar criminal histories convicted of similar criminal conduct—not disparities between codefendants.” 

Further, this principle only applies to disparities between federal defendants:

“Although district courts may consider disparities among codefendants, the ‘only disparities relevant ... are those among federal defendants on a national scale.’” 

This meant that the district court mad ethe wrong decision when the court considered the disparity between Bass’s federal sentence and Webb’s state sentence. 


Parole Board

The Sixth Circuit also indicated that the district court was incorrect when they analogized their role in this circumstance to a parole board: 

“To replace parole, “Congress established the system of supervised release,” which was introduced “only to encourage rehabilitation after the completion of [the defendant’s] prison term.”... This overhaul of the sentencing procedures marked a substantial shift away from the system of parole and emphasis on rehabilitation. That the new compassionate release procedure was developed after parole was abolished does not mean that Congress intended to reinstitute the system of parole when it modified the compassionate release statute in the First Step Act.

Further, the Sixth Circuit held that the differences between compassionate release and parole make this even more inappropriate.

3553(a) Factors

The court also noted that the 3553(a) factors weighed against release as well.  The sixth circuit noted the severity of the crimes and the fact that he employed members of his family to engage in the roles of the drug trafficking organization.  The court also noted that Bass’s release might endanger the public; an unknown person wrote a letter indicating that he was still a danger to society.   

The Sixth Circuit's Remand

The Sixth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court but ordered them to consider whether there are extraordinary and compelling circumstances given the decline in cases at McKean and the high inoculation rate.  

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