Compassionate Release In The Era of COVID-19
Requirements for Compassionate Release
In general, a federal inmate may be granted compassionate release if the court finds that “extraordinary and compelling” reasons warrant such a reduction (inmates who are at least 70 years of age and have served 30 years in prison may also be granted a motion for compassionate release). 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A).
So, what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling” reasons? The answer to this question is largely answered in a policy statement issued by the United States Sentencing Commission and codified in the United States Sentencing Guidelines at Section 1B1.13.
Danger to the community
As an initial matter, the inmate must not be a danger to any person or to the community. In making this determination, the court primarily looks to the nature of the offense conduct, the inmate’s prior criminal record and personal traits, and whether or not the inmate was subject to a criminal justice sentence when they committed the offense.
If the inmate is deemed not to be a danger, then “extraordinary and compelling” reasons may be established in one or more of four ways.
An inmate’s medical condition may be considered extraordinary and compelling if the defendant is suffering from a terminal illness, such as metastatic solid-tumor cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), end-stage organ disease, or advanced dementia.
An inmate’s medical condition may also be considered extraordinary and compelling if the inmate is suffering from a serious and irreversible physical or medical condition, or functional or cognitive impairment, that substantially diminishes their ability to care for themself within a correctional facility environment. Similarly, an inmate who is experiencing irreversible and deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process may also be considered to have an extraordinary and compelling medical condition if it substantially diminishes their ability to care for themself within a correctional facility environment.
An inmate may establish extraordinary and compelling reasons based on their age if they are at least 65 years old, are experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process, and have served at least 10 years or 75% of their sentence.
It should be noted that age-based compassionate release differs from medical-based compassionate release in that it does not require that the inmate’s condition substantially diminishes their ability to care for themself within a correctional facility environment.
An inmate’s family circumstances may be considered extraordinary and compelling if the caregiver of the inmate’s minor child or children dies or, alternatively, if the inmate’s spouse or partner becomes incapacitated, and the inmate is the only available caregiver for the spouse or partner.
“Other” reasons and/or combination of reasons
A motion for compassionate release may also be based on an extraordinary and compelling reason other than medical condition, age, or family circumstances, if the reason, alone or in combination with the aforementioned or other reasons, warrant such a reduction.
Compassionate Release Data for 2020
(Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission, Compassionate Release Data Report for Calendar Year 2020, July 2021)
For calendar year 2020, a total of 12,885 motions for compassionate release were filed in federal courts throughout the country. Among these, 2,604, or just over 20%, were granted, while 10,281, nearly 80%, were denied. While granted motions in 2020 constitute a minority of filed motions, they nonetheless represent significant growth in the number of inmates receiving compassionate release. For example, in 2019, 145 motions for compassionate release were granted, and in 2018, prior to inmates having the right to file their own motions, only 24 motions were granted.
An inmate’s chance for success in having their motion granted varied substantially depending on where their case originated. Among the most generous federal districts granting compassionate release motions were Puerto Rico (73.7%), Oregon (69.8%), Rhode Island (64.4%), Guam (62.5%), and Massachusetts (62.2%). The most difficult districts to convince were Western North Carolina (1.5%), Eastern Texas (2.5%), Southern Georgia (2.9%), Eastern Arkansas (2.7%), and Eastern Oklahoma (2.9%).
Compassionate release motions that were granted in 2020 were dominated by inmates who were sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, which comprised 53% of all motions granted, followed by firearms offenses (12.5%), fraud offenses (10.1%), and robbery offenses (8.1%). This list of offenses is not particularly surprising given the notorious punitive nature of the sentencing guidelines toward these crimes, particularly drug offense. Interestingly, child pornography cases, which have notoriously significant sentence disparity, comprised only 3.3% of granted motions.
Finally, and bit surprising perhaps, is that the original sentence length had minimal impact on which cases were granted compassionate release. Specifically, sentence lengths of 2 to 5 years, 5 to 10 years, 10 to 20 years, and 20 or more years each comprised approximately one-fourth of motions granted.
For years, the compassionate release of a federal inmate was a rare occurrence. However, in the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of inmates being granted compassionate release. This is the result of two unrelated events, first the authorization allowing inmates to file their own motions, and second the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The future of compassionate release in federal cases remains to be seen. However, for the first time in a long time, there is real hope for federal inmates who endure significant suffering as a result of their incarceration.