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March 10, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report titled "Compassionate Release: The Impact of the First Step Act & COVID-19 Pandemic"


The US Sentencing Commission indicated that is was working on a big new compassionate release report, and I am pleased to see from my email inbox that it was released today.  Here is the text about the report that was in the email I received:

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) today released a new report that examines trends in compassionate release during fiscal year 2020 in light of the enactment of the First Step Act of 2018, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, Acting Chair of the Commission, stated “I am pleased that the Commission has issued this comprehensive report on compassionate release trends in fiscal year 2020. This report builds on the Commission’s significant work in this area, including a report on the first year of implementation of the First Step Act and the Commission’s previously released quarterly data reports analyzing motions for compassionate release.”

Acting Chair Breyer noted, “Prior to the enactment of the First Step Act, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could file compassionate release motions. The First Step Act enables defendants to file these motions directly in federal court after exhausting administrative requirements. These changes, coupled with the pandemic, resulted predictably in a dramatic increase in both motions for and grants of compassionate release.”

According to the report, in fiscal year 2020, courts decided 7,014 compassionate release motions, granting compassionate release to one-quarter (25.7%) of those offenders. The number of offenders granted relief increased more than twelvefold compared to 2019 — the year immediately following passage of the First Step Act. Courts cited health risks associated with COVID-19 as at least one reason for relief in 71.5% of grants.

“Unfortunately, in the intervening time between enactment of the First Step Act and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission lost its quorum, rendering it unable to amend the compassionate release policy statement. The absence of this guidance has resulted in a lack of uniformity in how compassionate release motions are considered and applied across the country,” said Judge Breyer. The Report identified considerable variability in the application of compassionate release across the country among those offenders in the study group—ranging from a grant-rate high of 47.5% in the First Circuit to a low of 13.7% in the Fifth Circuit.

“This report underscores why it is crucial for the Commission to regain a quorum to again have the ability to address important policy issues in the criminal justice system, such as compassionate release,” added Breyer. “Nevertheless, I am proud of the extensive work the Commission did to compile this insightful data. I believe this report will provide valuable information to lawmakers, the Courts, advocacy organizations, and the American public.”

This full USSC report, available here, runs 86 pages and I hope to find time in the coming days to highlight a variety of findings from the report. The USSC has created this two-page infographic about the report with a few data highlights, and this USSC webpage provides an overview and an extended list of "key findings."

Though I am VERY excited to dig into this report and look forward to exploring what lessons these data may have for any possible revision of guidelines and practices related to compassionate release, I am a bit disappointed that this new USSC report only covers developments and data through September 2020.  Though these data capture the many developments through the first part of the COVID pandemic, there still had then not been any significant circuit rulings about the operation of compassionate release and other USSC data runs have detailed that there were an additional 10,000 motions and about 1500 addition compassionate release grants in just the six months after September 2020.  I fully understand why the USSC could not do this kind of detailed report on all cases up to the present, but everyone should not lose sight of the fact that this new report is already somewhat dated because it only captures data through September 2020.

March 10, 2022 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


Perhaps they should restore the parole system. It strikes me as a more efficient use of time than requiring District Judges to do it.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Mar 10, 2022 2:29:18 PM

I remember when I was in law school, the general consensus was that the old system -- an effectively indeterminate sentence (whether formally expressed at sentencing as x to y years or implied by the laws establishing parole eligibility) -- benefitted neither the defendant nor the victims. Not knowing the release date hindered the ability of the defendant to plan for release and having multiple parole hearings required victims to continue to interact with and follow the case.

If compassionate release is appropriately defined (serious illness, etc.) to prevent it from becoming a de facto parole system in which every inmate is eligible for early compassionate release, it would seem to make sense to have a "neutral" agency (i.e. not under the supervision of the Bureau of Prison) to hear requests rather than making inmates go to courts (which have other cases to deal with that may get higher priority than the compassionate release application).

Posted by: tmm | Mar 11, 2022 10:25:11 AM

I am an 85-year-old mother that has a daughter (62) awaiting sentencing in Iowa. Is it possible to have full information on the compassionate release program?
She is the only one of three daughters that can help take care of me. I left the mountains in New Mexico, because I was going to be closer to her in Fontana for the help. I didn't find out until recently in May; this is a 4-year-old conspiracy charge for an offense that allegedly triggered other defendants committing more serious illegal offenses. She was not aware of the charge until December when she was arrested, and I was already planning to move closer to her since October.
She does have a court appointed attorney, but she would like to be informed if there is anything that that might be helpful to file a compassionate leave petition to the court.
If there is a fee for an article or articles that might be helpful, I am willing to pay for them.

Thank you in advance,
Mary E. Stanfield
[email protected]

Posted by: Mary Esther Stanfield | Jul 24, 2023 4:17:26 PM

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