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 includes 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 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 cited as well additional issues and recommended changes.  

In response to these reports, the BOP adopted new compassionate release criteria in August 2013, expanding the circumstances that the BOP will consider as “extraordinary and compelling” and outlining factors prison officials must consider before seeking early release of a prisoner from the court.


  1. 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.


On August 12, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Bureau of Prison’s had adopted new policies regarding which prisoners will be considered for compassionate release. Read the new policy here.

The new guidelines implement some of the recommendations from The Answer is No and the OIG report.  They are contained in a Program Statement.  It outlines, among other things,

  1. What constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons
  2. Additional information prison officials should take into account
  3. Information the prisoner (or someone acting for him) must provide to the warden.

The new compassionate release criteria break 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.

FAMM continues to work closely with BOP officials and encouraging them to improve the compassionate release process for federal prisoners.  FAMM is also meeting with members of Congress and urging them to hold hearings to keep the BOP accountable and, if necessary, to introduce a bill to allow prisoners to seek compassionate release without a motion from the BOP. Finally, FAMM will weigh in with the USSC, which is considering adopting new guidance for judges considering compassionate release motions from the BOP.


New York Times Editorial: Nursing Homes Behind Bars

New Compassionate Release Rules: Breaking it down

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

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

Department of Justice Report on Compassionate Release

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