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December 9, 2012

NY Times editorial laments lack of compassionate release

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "What Compassionate Release?". Here are excerpts:

Federal sentencing law has been indefensibly harsh for a generation, but in theory it has contained a safety valve called compassionate release.  The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act gives federal courts the power to reduce sentences of federal prisoners for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” like a terminal illness.

In practice, though, the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department, which oversees the bureau, have not just failed to make use of this humane and practical program, but have crippled it.  That is the disturbing and well-substantiated conclusion of a new report by Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

From 1992 through this November, a period in which the population of federal prisons almost tripled from around 80,000 to close to 220,000 inmates, the bureau released 492 prisoners under this program.  This is a mere two dozen or so on average each year, and the number has so far not surpassed 37.  The percentage of prisoners released has shrunk from tiny to microscopic....

The United States Sentencing Commission has identified several extraordinary and compelling reasons that could justify compassionate release: terminal illness, a permanent physical or mental condition, impairment due to old age, the death or incapacitation of a family member who has been solely responsible for the care of the prisoner’s minor children.

But as things have turned out, the human rights report says, virtually the only ground the bureau accepts for compassionate release is a terminal illness with up to a year of life expectancy.  To make matters worse, even when the prisoner meets its excessively strict tests, the bureau itself decides whether the prisoner should be set free — in effect usurping discretionary powers that Congress awarded the courts.

The report offers some sound remedies. Congress should modify the law to give prisoners themselves the right to seek compassionate release from a court.  Congress should require the bureau to publish all program data, including the number of requests denied and why. And Congress should reaffirm the role of the courts as final arbiter.

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Comments

I am amazed that there are no comments to this story. I would like to find answers to the many questions that I have concerning this topic. I would even love to help work on getting info out to the many that this affects. We do need change in this regard and we do need it now so that others do not have to suffer the hell that I did.

Posted by: widow | Dec 10, 2012 6:13:46 PM

Should compassionate release be expanded? Probably so. But Congress and BOP are understandably worried that making such issues judicially reviewable by the likes of Judges Weinstein and Reinhardt would convert the program from its narrow intended uses into a free fall. Another instance where over the top judging turns out to harm people by causing congress to remove discretion.

Posted by: Worried | Dec 11, 2012 9:22:10 AM

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