Compassionate Release Appeal and Abuse of Discretion

In most cases, compassionate release appeals are difficult since the First Step Act gives district courts full discretion.

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When seeking an appeal of a compassionate release that has been denied, the abuse of discretion on behalf of the incarcerated person is almost impossible.  With very little caselaw to inform the courts and no explicit guidelines from Congress, the courts have free discretion.

Brief History of Compassionate Release Through First Step Act

The First Step Act of 2018 formulated the compassionate release motion the way we know it today. Prior to the First Step Act of 2018, federal inmates could not file their compassionate release. Before 2018, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was the only authority on filing these motions. However, the motions were rarely being filed even though there were numerous occasions where a compassionate release could have been granted to severely sick inmates.

Ultimately, this issue was addressed through the First Step Act.  This allows inmates to file compassionate release motions on their own behalf. The one stipulation required inmates to first raise the issue to their warden.  Next, the inmate would wait 30 days.  Then, the incarcerated person could bring a compassionate release issue before the court.

First Step Act Limitations on Compassionate Release

Since the Act has only recently been implemented, there is very little caselaw that informed courts on evaluating and ruling on these motions. Also, Congress did not explicitly define how to handle the compassionate release motions brought forth by inmates.

Congress only told sentencing courts that they could grant sentence reductions for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” This phrase is vague.  It essentially gives courts the authority to define what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling.”

Factors and Guidelines for “Extraordinary and Compelling”

Prior to the First Step Act, the primary factors used to decide whether an inmate was to be granted a compassionate release was the United States Sentencing Commission’s Policy Statement Section 1B1.13. However, this changed when federal inmates were given the opportunity to bring their compassionate release motions in front of the Court.  The guidelines used by the Sentencing Commission seemed to no longer have a place.

In the decision of United States v. Jones, No. 20-3701, 2020 WL 6817488 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020), the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion essentially stating that the Sentencing Commission Guideline 1B1.13 was no longer applicable.  This resulted in district court judges in the Sixth Circuit having full discretion and authority to define “extraordinary and compelling.”

In United States v. Elias, Lisa Elias was serving a sentence of 108 months in prison on a drug charge. On April 30, 2020, she filed a compassionate release motion arguing that her hypertension put her at risk of serious illness or death if she were to contract COVID-19.

The district court used a two-part test to decide whether the concern of contracting COVID-19 becomes an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release:

“(1) when the defendant is at high risk of having complications from COVID-19 and (2) the prison where the defendant is held has a severe COVID-19 outbreak.”

The district court denied her motion. The court considered the CDC guidance available at the time, which did not include hypertension. Elias appealed to the Sixth Circuit, claiming that the district court abused its discretion in denying her motion. However, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, restating points previously made in United States v. Jones.

Abuse of Discretion to Affirm the Denial of Compassionate Release.

The court considered whether the denial of the compassionate release was appropriate. The court used an abuse of discretion standard in order to determine if the denial was warranted. An abuse of discretion occurs when the district court:

  1. “relies” on clearly erroneous findings of fact,
  2. uses an erroneous legal standard, or
  3. improperly applies the law.”

The Sixth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse their discretion by relying on CDC guidance that was in effect at the time. The district court examined the BOP’s website and noted that there were no cases reported at the prison where Elias was located. Thus, the reason behind the Court’s decision to affirm the denial of the compassionate release.

Conclusion: To Appeal or Not

All of this is important to note when deciding whether or not to appeal a district court’s decision in the denial of a compassionate release. To successfully win an appeal, the appellant must be able to prove the above explicitly. In most cases, this is extremely difficult to do since the adoption of the First Step Act gives district courts full discretion.

In addition, it is also essential to understand that every court of appeals to decide the issue so far, has held that the Sentencing Commission policy statement on compassionate release is no longer “applicable” to requests from inmates after the First Step Act. And while many courts still use the guidelines as starting points to make decisions, this is not a requirement.

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