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July 11, 2012

Fascinating video documenting challenges of securing compassionate release for dying federal prisoner

Federal public defender Steve Sady has an extraordinary record of litigating effectively (if not always successfully) a number of lower-profile, but highly-important, federal sentencing issues related to how the Bureau of Prisons runs federal prisons and applies various federal statutes.  And now, thanks to this post at the Ninth Circuit Blog, I see that Steve Sady has created an extraordinary video which documents his work on the issue of compassionate release on behalf of one terminally ill federal prisoner.  The blog post is titled "Second Look Resentencing: The Human Costs Of The BOP’s Restrictive Implementation Of Compassionate Release," and here is the introduction to the video which I have embedded below:

Phillip Smith contacted our office because, even though he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the Bureau of Prisons refused to allow his sentencing judge to decide whether to grant a motion to reduce his sentence and let him die at home.  After about two weeks of litigation, the BOP agreed to file the motion, which the judge immediately signed.  After release, Phillip sat down with us to describe his experience with a system that failed to even alert his judge to his terminal illness until he had almost no time left. The video with Phillip's story in his own words is available here.  Phillip died a week after the interview.

Legal arguments are one thing; the practical and human costs are another. Phillip hoped that by putting a human face on the problem, things would change for the hundreds of prisoners whose sentencing judges never even know of the extraordinary and compelling circumstances that warrant a second look resentencing.

July 11, 2012 at 03:05 AM | Permalink


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The crime probably concerns some people here.

"On November 13, 2002, Mr. Smith pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, methamphetamine. See Presentence Report, attached to Declaration of Counsel (filed separately under seal) as Exhibit A. More than nine years ago, on February 7, 2003, the Court sentenced Mr. Smith to 156 months imprisonment and three years supervised release."

[from motion via Google search]

Posted by: Joe | Jul 11, 2012 10:28:35 AM

As a lawyer who has been a "guest" of the BOP, I was very touched by Phillip's story. Compasionate release has long been recognized by federal prisoners to be a fraud. Its non-application is consistent with the BOP's general policy of treating pisoners like a valuable commodity to be held onto at any cost. Personally, I believe this policy flows from a desire for job security, as well as an interest in seeing children, spouses and siblings hired by the Bureau. More prisoners simply creates more opportunities.

Posted by: barry | Jul 11, 2012 12:15:27 PM

It is interesting that this post follows closely on the heels of the post about the dearth of Pardons by the executive branch. It does seem that once the BOP gets their hands on someone, there is no hope. While pardons and the Innocence projects do maybe free some, our over-populated prisons should have an effective program to assist prisoners such as this one at least make an effective presentation to the sentencing judge, rather than stand as a stumbling block.

Posted by: folly | Jul 11, 2012 12:32:43 PM

What I noticed first off was: they threw me in the hole, didn't want anyone else to catch it. Really, hes dying and they put him in segregation.. Thata the good old BOP for ya...The outfit that gives 47 days/yr credit instead of 54 off a yr...Or you do 87,2% instead of 85%.....They also don't send the guys home very early for there halfway house term to get used to their new world. Neither do they
start the RDA program in time to receive much of a break off their sentence...

Its a shame the Feds are so obtuse and pure, until you find out what they've been doing..

Posted by: Josh2 | Jul 11, 2012 10:44:26 PM

I've litigated these issues in state court and it can be incredibly frustrating because the state can easily run out the clock by refusing to cooperate with an acceleration of the normal, glacial pace of litigation. Whether this is intentional, or perhaps more likely, due to indifference, the effect is the same.

The issue is not ripe until the person is close to dead, but then you often can't even get a merits determination until they are either already dead, or on the doorstep. It is not unusual to have a slam-dunk case for release delayed for weeks or months and then have the person die within a day or two of release. Pointless, and cruel to their families. The policy doesn't even apply for serious violent crimes, so these are mostly people in for property crimes or drugs. And none of these people are in any shape to cause any trouble anyway, by the time they are seeking this remedy.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 20, 2012 3:56:43 PM

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