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April 13, 2020

"Tips For Prisoner Release Requests During Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new Law360 piece authored by William Athanas, JD Thomas and Charles Prueter.  Here are excerpts:

This article reviews the legal framework applied to assess compassionate release requests seeking relief based on the pandemic, and endeavors to extract guiding principles from 70 of the decisions issued by federal courts in the past three weeks in an effort to inform eligibility determinations and increase the likelihood of success of future motions....

Defendants began to file motions for compassionate release premised on COVID-19 fears in the third week of March. In reviewing 70 of the orders issued in response to these motions since March 17, it is interesting to note that only one was filed by an inmate actually suffering from the disease. Instead, those seeking relief premised their requests on risk of harm that would result were they to become infected.

A review of decisions issued as of April 10 reveals a number of guiding principles:

  • Exhaustion of administrative remedies is the key factor.  In all but three of the 43 cases where courts denied relief, failure to exhaust administrative remedies was the primary reason given.  In the 24 cases where relief was granted, the defendant was found to have exhausted administrative remedies, or the court determined that an exception to the exhaustion requirement existed.
  • Government consent is an important, but not essential, factor.  To be sure, a defendant’s ability to secure government consent to the motion was valuable.  Compassionate release was granted in all of the cases where the government consented to the relief sought.  But even in the remaining cases where the government objected to the motion, compassionate relief was granted in 13 instances (note that it was unclear whether the government opposed relief in the remaining cases).
  • Types of health conditions matter.  As one would expect, motions filed by inmates with significant respiratory issues were granted most frequently.  Success was not limited to inmates experiencing those conditions, however, as courts also granted compassionate release for those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, Crohn’s disease, and other instances where inmates suffered from chronic conditions which left them immunocompromised.  Note that not all inmates suffering from such conditions have been deemed eligible for relief, however, if they failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
  • Length of sentence remaining was not a determinative factor.  While many of the defendants successful in gaining release had a relatively short amount of time left before completing their sentences, courts have not required deemed that a perquisite.  In fact, of the defendants whose motions have been granted, 10 had a year or more left to serve.
  • Presence of the virus in the facility.  Several courts which granted relief cited this factor as evidence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” including one which distinguished cases denying relief on the grounds on the fact those defendants were not housed in facilities where “where COVID-19 was spreading.”  At least half the cases made no mention of this factor, however, suggesting that it is not a necessary prerequisite. In one instance, relief was granted even though the defendant had already been released to a residential reentry center....

The number of compassionate release motions premised on COVID-19 is likely to increase as pandemic worsens in the days and months to come.  Because the law governing evaluation of such motions is so recent, those seeking relief on the basis of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” are well served by understanding which factual scenarios and legal arguments best position those requests for successful outcomes.

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April 13, 2020 at 10:55 AM | Permalink

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