What is Compassionate Release?
Federal law allows for the release of inmates in extraordinary circumstances, typically involving an inmate’s health, advanced age, or the health of a loved one. The program is called Compassionate Release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582.
The Compassionate Release program was designed as a way to address cases in which compassion towards an inmate is warranted and justified. There are a number of circumstances in which Compassionate Release is considered. Specifically, the standard for Compassionate Release under the federal law is when “extraordinary and compelling reasons” are present.
“Extraordinary and compelling reasons” include circumstances in which an inmate is suffering from a terminal illness or a debilitating injury; an inmate who is elderly; and an inmate whose spouse is incapacitated.
While Compassionate Release is relief that is difficult to obtain, it is still a possibility provided that an inmate meets the criteria that fall under the “extraordinary and compelling reasons” standard.
Compassionate Release Under the First Step Act
In December 2018, the First Step Act was enacted into law. The First Step Act marked the first substantial reform to our federal criminal justice system in decades. Among its many criminal justice reforms, the First Step Act made a major change to how the Compassionate Release program is administered.
Prior to December 2018, an inmate could only obtain Compassionate Release if the inmate was able to persuade the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to make a Compassionate Release request on the inmate’s behalf. Needless to say, that was a relatively high hurdle to overcome.
However, with the passage of the First Step Act, inmates now have the option to make a Compassionate Release application directly to a sentencing court if the BOP has expressed its unwillingness to bring an application on the inmate’s behalf.
This is a significant, and positive, change for inmates because a Compassionate Release application no longer begins and ends with the BOP, or the Warden of the facility in which the inmate resides. Now, an inmate can make his or her case to a court of law that may be more objective in reviewing a Compassionate Release request.
The Process to Seek Compassionate Release Under the First Step Act
If an inmate meets the eligibility criteria for Compassionate Release (discussed below), then the inmate would first make a Compassionate Release request to his or her Unit Team in the prison facility. The Warden of the facility would review the request, and ultimately the BOP Director will decide on whether the BOP will move forward with the request on the inmate’s behalf. If, after 30 days of the request to the BOP or after exhausting all other administrative remedies, the inmate does not get a favorable response on Compassionate Release, then the inmate can make an application for Compassionate Release directly to the sentencing court in which he or she was originally sentenced.
There are a number of factors that the Warden, BOP, and/or sentencing judge use to determine whether to grant a Compassionate Release request under Section 3582. Those factors include the following:
- Nature and circumstances of inmate’s offense
- Criminal history
- Victim comments
- Supervised release violations
- Institutional adjustment
- Disciplinary infractions
- Length of sentence and time served
- Age at the time of the offense
- Inmate’s release plans (such as employment, medical, financial)
- Whether release would minimize the severity of the offense.
Compassionate Release for Sick Inmates
There are two medical conditions that constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for Compassionate Release. A reduction in sentence is possible when an inmate has been diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease and whose life expectancy is 18 months or less.
Also, an inmate with an incurable, progressive illness, or who has suffered a debilitating injury from which he or she will not recover, may also receive a reduction in sentence. Alzheimer’s disease or a traumatic brain injury could qualify for such illnesses.
Compassionate Release for Aging Inmates
Aging inmates are also eligible for Compassionate Release. First, inmates who are 70 years old or older and have served 30 years or more of their term of imprisonment can qualify for a reduction in sentence.
Second, elderly inmates who are ill are also eligible for a reduction in sentence. Specifically, an inmate can request for a Compassionate Release when an inmate:
- Is 65 years old or older;
- Suffers from chronic or serious medical conditions related to the aging process;
- Is experiencing deteriorating mental or physical health that substantially diminishes his or her ability to function in a correctional facility;
- Has a mental or physical condition that will not improve with conventional treatment; and
- Has served at least 50% of his or her sentence.
Third, inmates who are 65 and older who have served the greater of 10 years or 75% of their sentences are also eligible for a reduction in sentence. However, those who were sentenced at age 60 or older are generally not eligible for a reduction in sentence as a Compassionate Release.
Compassionate Release for Other Extraordinary and Compelling Circumstances.
Other “extraordinary and compelling reasons” include death or incapacitation of a family member caregiver. The typical scenario that this provision is meant to cover is for an inmate who has children, and the person who is caring for those children dies or becomes incapacitated.
Finally, if an inmate would be the only caregiver for a spouse or registered partner, then the inmate can receive a reduction in sentence under Compassionate Release.
Examples of Compassionate Release
A number of cases give context to Compassionate Release relief. Here are three examples.
First, in United States v. McGraw, the defendant was sentenced to life in prison on drug charges and had served about 17 years at the time he sought Compassionate Release based on his medical condition. The defendant used a wheelchair and walker to ambulate short distances, required portable oxygen, and had other conditions including diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, hypertension, emphysema, and chronic kidney disease.
The court in McGraw granted the defendant a Compassionate Release. It found that the defendant’s “chronic, serious conditions, including those that are mitigated when properly treated by medical professionals, demonstrate a substantially diminished ability to provide self-care from which he is not expected to recover. Extraordinary and compelling reasons therefore support a reduction in sentence.”
Second, in United States v. Beck, the defendant claimed that lumps in her body were not properly addressed and that her treatment schedule was inappropriate, leading to metastatic breast cancer that had progressed to a point where it was too late to do either radiation or chemotherapy. Once her Compassionate Release application went to court, the court found that the improper treatment schedule constituted “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The court reduced Beck’s sentence to time served.
Third, in United States v. Cantu, the defendant pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and was originally sentenced to approximately 24 years in prison. He sought Compassionate Release, asking for a reduction in sentence to time served. His request for Compassionate Release did not specify one of the criteria discussed above, though the defendant also sought relief under another program called the Elderly Offender Home Detention Program. Once the defendant’s request made it to court, the court found that the defendant presented no danger to the safety of others, and that sufficient “extraordinary and compelling reasons” existed to grant Compassionate Release.
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