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:
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
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,
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:
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.
BOP Policy Statement on Compassionate Release (August 12, 2013)
Video: The Broken Promise of Compassionate Release by Steve Sady, Esq.