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November 30, 2012

New report assails (lack of) compassionate release in federal system

Us1112_reportcover_0As highlighted via this NPR piece, headlined "Federal 'Compassionate' Prison Release Rarely Given," Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have today released a big new report criticizing the poor administration of the federal compassionate release program. Here are excerpts from the NPR piece:

Back in 1984, Congress gave authorities the power to let people out of federal prison early, in extraordinary circumstances, like if inmates were gravely ill or dying. But a new report says the Federal Bureau of Prisons blocks all but a few inmates from taking advantage of "compassionate release."

The federal prisons house more than 218,000 inmates but, on average, they release only about two dozen people a year under the program. By contrast, the state of Texas, no slouch when it comes to tough punishment, let out about 100 people on medical parole last year, researchers say.

"Why are so few people getting out?" asks Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch who helped write the new study. "You have a prison system that is grotesquely overcrowded, you have prisoners who pose no meaningful threat to public safety and yet they're being denied release?"

Fellner says she's convinced the culture of the federal prisons and the Justice Department acts as an iron curtain for all but the sickest inmates — people with less than a year to live, who can't even walk or use the bathroom on their own, let alone commit another crime....

Mary Price, general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, helped write the new report. She says she's tried to help Mahoney — and many other inmates — win compassionate release. "We don't sentence people to die alone in prison when we've given them a five-year sentence," she says.

Price says Congress gave judges the authority to make decisions about which prisoners could be released for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons. But under the rules, the Bureau of Prisons has to petition the court first. And the bureau usually says no — without ever involving the court.

For instance, Price and Fellner say they couldn't find a single case in the last 20 years where prison authorities had granted a compassionate release for an inmate to care for young children after a spouse or partner died, even though Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission expressly left open that option....

Advocates at Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are calling on the Bureau of Prisons to open up its procedures. And they're asking Congress to pass a law that would allow prisoners to go directly to the courts if the bureau shuts them down.

The Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is reviewing the program, too. He says it could help save money and cut down on prison overcrowding.

The full report is available at this link, and here are two paragraphs from the lengthy report's summary:

Congress authorized what is commonly called “compassionate release” because it recognized the importance of ensuring that justice could be tempered by mercy.  A prison sentence that was just when imposed could — because of changed circumstances — become cruel as well as senseless if not altered.  The US criminal justice system, even though it prizes the consistency and finality of sentences, makes room for judges to take a second look to assess the ongoing justice of a sentence.

Prisoners cannot seek a sentence reduction f or extraordinary and compelling circumstances directly from the courts.  By law, only the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP, the Bureau ) has the authority to file a motion with a court that requests judicial consideration of early release. Although we do not know how many prisoners have asked the BOP to make motions on their behalf — because the BOP does not keep such records — we do know the BOP rarely does so.  The federal prison sys tem houses over 218,000 prisoners, yet in 2011, the BOP filed only 30 motions for early release, and between January 1 and November 15, 2012, it filed 37.  Since 1992, the annual average number of prisoners who received compassionate release has been less t han two dozen. Compassionate release is conspicuous for its absence.

November 30, 2012 at 12:54 PM | Permalink


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It appears that since 1992, some 4000, persons, give or take, have been released under the compassionate release program. It be interesting to know the recidivism rate during this 20 year period for persons given compassionate release.

Posted by: C | Nov 30, 2012 4:11:21 PM


"Although we do not know how many prisoners have asked the BOP to make motions on their behalf — because the BOP does not keep such records — we do know the BOP rarely does so."

Well first maybe it's time thier bosses damanded they keep those records and make them public information and second maybe we need a clean sweep thourght bop and ask the inmates

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 30, 2012 11:18:08 PM

I agree with you rodsmith. The BOP needs some oversight. They seem to be running wild with no repercussions from anyone.

Posted by: Jill | Dec 1, 2012 9:52:17 AM

My husband died from pancreatic cancer. The death certificate listed cause of death as pancreatic cancer. Compassionate release was denied last December and he died alone in prison this past April. The BOP denial letter said he did not have cancer.

Posted by: Widow | Dec 2, 2012 9:21:28 AM

Hello, my name is Rebecca.  My husbands brother is incarcerated at Butner Correctional Facilty, in Butner , North Carolina. He has liver cancer. He was told he has only 6 to 9 months to live December 2012. He applied for a compassionate release, to which they denied. He is in need of a surgery and they will not approve it.He has tumors that spasm,that cause him pain. His wife just left him , and his children are in need of him. We are looking for any help in any form, please point us in the right direction.  Thank you , Rebecca and Terry Florez 

Posted by: Rebecca | Jul 2, 2013 12:25:40 PM

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