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March 8, 2021

Curious spitting over COVID prison data as Sixth Circuit panel ultimately affirms rejection of compasionate release motion

I sometimes feel social media tends to encourage some folks (myself included) to pick relatively silly fights over relatively silly matters.  That tendency seems to have bled over to a Sixth Circuit panel: today it released an opinion on a compassionate release appeal with two judges picking a relatively silly fight over relatively serious matter. Specifically, in US v. Mathews, No. 20-1635 (6th Cir. Mar. 8, 2021) (available here), the panel unanimously concluded that the district jusge did not abuse his discretion in denying
compassionate release based on his consideration of the § 3553(a) factors.  But while harmonious on the result, two judges decided to pick at each other over COVID prison data.

Judge Moore wrote the main opinion, and she begns by setting a serious tone concerning the matters at issue in the case (footnotes with cites to data omitted): 

By the end of 2020, one in every five persons incarcerated in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. At least 275,000 imprisoned persons across the country have been infected; more than 1,700 have died.  A court’s refusal to reduce an incarcerated person’s sentence could result in death.

Judge Readler was apparently put off by this discussion and other parts of the opinion by Judge Moore, as he authors a one-page concurrence that includes complaints like this:

In reaching that conclusion, however, the lead opinion covers ground that is neither necessary to the outcome nor joined by another member of the panel, making it dicta, and seemingly misplaced dicta at that.  One example is the opinion’s introductory paragraph, which frames the appeal by invoking prison-related data collected by the Marshall Project.  As neither that data nor the means for collecting it are part of the record in this case, and thus unmeasured by federal evidentiary standards, the data’s value is difficult to assess.

Undaunted, Judge Moore has a lengthy footnote pushing back at Judge Readler which starts this way:

In what can only be described as dicta about dicta, Judge Readler diminishes COVID-19’s rampage in our federal prisons and assails The Marshall Project’s integrity.  We should not treat lightly the experience of persons who are incarcerated in prisons that are plagued with a deadly virus; nor should we demean those who advocate for imprisoned persons.  Many compassionate-release motions implicate complex issues of law and policy that merit our attention.  Contemplation of these issues aids our future reviews of compassionate-release motions.

This not-quite-judicious sparring by these jurists ultimately makes no difference to the outcome of the case, and I cannot help but wonder what the imprisoned appellant thinks of it all.  But I think that this particular outcome should not eclipse the official BOP data showing that more than 3000 compassionate-release motions motions having been granted since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  Throughout the COVID pandemic, an average of roughtly 50 sentencing reductions have been granted each week, which reveals that a good number of judges have, fortunately, refused to "treat lightly the experience of persons who are incarcerated in prisons that are plagued with a deadly virus."

March 8, 2021 at 09:40 PM | Permalink

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