Compassionate Release



The Problem: Congress gave federal courts the power to release federal prisoners early – commonly referred to as “compassionate release” – for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. Congress authorized compassionate release because it realized that changed circumstances could make continued imprisonment senseless and inhumane. But if the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) refuses to bring prisoners’ cases to the courts, judges cannot rule on whether release is warranted. Unfortunately, the BOP rarely brings court motions for compassionate release.

FAMM’s advocacy work began by urging the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons to bring more motions for compassionate release. To raise awareness of the lack of compassionate release, FAMM and Human Rights Watch issued a report, The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons. It is the first comprehensive examination of how compassionate release in the federal system works. The 2013 report found numerous problems with the compassionate release process: 

  • Since 1992, the BOP has averaged annually only two dozen motions to the courts for early release, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000.
  • BOP officials refuse to make a motion to the courts if in their personal judgment the prisoner has not been punished long enough, might re-offend if released, or has committed too heinous a crime.
  • BOP does not keep records of the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release.
  • BOP requires prisoners to be within 12 months of death or profoundly and irrevocably incapacitated to be eligible for compassionate release consideration. It does not make motions to the courts on non-medical grounds, even though Congress does not prohibit this.
  • Compassionate release requests are not handled in a timely fashion:  13% of prisoners waiting for final approval of their compassionate release requests died before the BOP could approve them.

The Office of Inspector General (the DOJ’s internal watchdog) issued a scathing report that echoed a number of concerns raised by FAMM and Human Rights Watch, and provided a series of recommendations.  


In 2017, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee finally addressed concerns that FAMM has raised about the BOP’s failure to grant compassionate release. Specifically, the Committee’s report directed the BOP to report on what it is doing to increase its use of compassionate release and to provide data on how many compassionate release requests have been granted and denied in the last five years, the reasons for those decisions, how long it took to process the request, and how many people died while waiting for an answer.

Shortly thereafter, 12 U.S. senators wrote a letter to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) requesting an update on its efforts to expand its use of the compassionate release program. We applauded the lawmakers for holding the BOP accountable for its parsimonious use of the compassionate release program.

In 2016, the Sentencing Commission, against the wishes of the Department of Justice, voted unanimously to broaden and strengthen the criteria for federal compassionate release. The changes included recommendations made by FAMM and other advocates. Ultimately the Commission

  1. Identified 4 categories of “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances that should prompt the Bureau of Prisons to ask the court to grant compassionate release. They are: Medical Condition, Age, Family Circumstances and Other Reasons.
    1. “Medical conditions” include (1) terminal illness or a serious medical condition, (2) serious functional or cognitive impairment, or (3) deteriorating health due to aging that will not improve and substantially diminishes the prisoner’s ability to care for him or herself in prison.
    2. “Age” applies if the defendant is 65 or older, is experiencing serious deterioration in physical or mental health due to the aging process and has served 10 years or 75% of the sentence, whichever is lesser.
    3. “Family Circumstances” include the death or incapacitation of the caregiver of the prisoner’s minor children, or incapacitation of the prisoner’s spouse or domestic partner when the prisoner would be the only caregiver left.
    4. “Other” permits the BOP to determine if other reasons not stated in the guideline exist and can be used to support compassionate release.
  2. Stated that the fact that the extraordinary and compelling reason could have been known or anticipated at the time of sentencing does not prevent the court from granting compassionate release.
  3. Encouraged the BOP to file a motion in any case for any prisoner who meets any of the criteria and leave it to the sentencing court to determine whether a reduction in sentence is warranted.

In 2013, spurred by criticisms from advocacy groups like FAMM and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Justice announced that the Bureau of Prison’s had adopted new policies regarding which prisoners will be considered for compassionate release. 

The new guidelines implemented some of the recommendations from The Answer is No and the OIG report. It outlines, among other things,

  • What constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons;
  • Additional information prison officials should take into account and;
  • Information the prisoner (or someone acting for him) must provide to the warden.
    The new compassionate release criteria are broken down into three categories:  medical, non-medical, and elderly (which in turn breaks down into medical and non-medical). The policy also requires the BOP to track compassionate release requests, handle them more efficiently, and establish personnel at each prison to process and monitor requests.

The future of compassionate release:

Despite successful efforts by advocacy groups like FAMM to strengthen the criteria for compassionate release in the federal system, the process is marred with neglect. The Office of the Inspector General found that in one year only 2 of the 93 elderly inmates who applied for compassionate release for non-medical reasons were granted release. None of the 203 elderly inmates who applied for medical compassionate release received it.

In order to improve the state of compassionate release at the federal level, FAMM recommends the following changes:

  1. The BOP should change its procedures to bring compassionate release motions to the court whenever it finds that a prisoner presents “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for release, regardless of whether bureau officials believe early release is warranted.
  2. Congress should enact legislation permitting prisoners to file motions seeking early release with the courts after they have exhausted their administrative remedies at the BOP.

For a full list of recommendations, see “The Answer is No” in the resources below. For easy, shareable data on the federal compassionate release program, read our one-pager here and in the resources below. 



FAMM/Human Rights Watch Report: The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in U.S. Federal Prisons

FAMM One-Pager on Compassionate Release

New York Times Editorial: Nursing Homes Behind Bars

2013 Compassionate Release Rules: Breaking it down

BOP Policy Statement on Compassionate Release (August 12, 2013)

Department of Justice Report on Compassionate Release

Video: The Broken Promise of Compassionate Release by Steve Sady, Esq.