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May 29, 2020

Terrific Prison Policy Initiative coverage of the limits of compassionate release and related pandemic problems

Pyle_compassionate_releasePrison Policy Initiative is a regular must-read for so many reasons in normal circumstance, and PPI has been especially effective with various "briefings" related to prison populations and other matters amidst this pandemic.  I have been remiss by failing to flag all of these on-point postings from the last few weeks

The last of these briefings, which is on the topic of compassionate release and was posted just today, includes a terrific visual from artist Kevin Pyle to help highlight why so very of those who apply for compassionate release get any relief.  Here is part of the text of the posting:

Applying for compassionate release is a lengthy and cumbersome process. Given that those who apply are almost always terminally ill or profoundly incapacitated, the arbitrary nature of this process means many die before their cases are resolved.

The compassionate release process varies tremendously between states (some states even give it a different name, like “medical parole,” “geriatric parole”, etc.), but the basic framework is the same: An incarcerated person is recommended for release on compassionate grounds to prison administrators, who then solicit a medical recommendation, and then administrators or members of the parole board approve or deny compassionate release. Some states allow only family and attorneys to recommend that someone be released on these grounds; others allow incarcerated individuals to apply on their own behalf, or allow prison personnel to do so.

Compassionate release programs are plagued by many shortcomings, including:

  • Requirements that a person be extremely close to death, or so incapacitated that they do not understand why they are being punished.
  • Requiring medical professionals to attest that someone is within six months, or nine months, of death. Health professionals are reluctant to give such exact prognoses, which means prison officials will default to saying “it’s safer just to not let this person go.”
  • Allowing the ultimate decision-makers to overrule recommendations from medical professionals and prison staff (e.g. by refuting or ignoring a medical prognosis).

The compassionate release process is frustratingly obscure not only for applicants, but for reporters, advocates, and others trying to understand the system. In their national survey, FAMM found that only three states are required to publish data on compassionate release grants, and eight other states publish some publicly available data, leaving most Americans in the dark about how often compassionate release is actually used. And despite that fact that FAMM has helpful memos for all fifty states and the District of Columbia detailing eligibility requirements for compassionate release, the application and referral process, the necessary documentation and assessments, and the decision-making criteria, the application process remains an arduous one....

But even when a compassionate release system operates efficiently and fairly, the majority of people in prison are still not eligible for it. As currently constituted, these programs exclude too many people and these systems were never designed for quick responses during a global pandemic. States need to look beyond compassionate release — including expedited parole, and mass commutations — to slow the spread of the pandemic and prevent a needless tragedy behind bars.

May 29, 2020 at 04:16 PM | Permalink

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