Improving Guidance to Judges on “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.  Learn more about the problems with compassionate release by visiting the resources below. 

However, when the BOP does bring a motion to a court asking for a prisoner’s compassionate release, the court follows the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s guidance on whether release should be granted.  The Commission’s current guidance describes to judges which “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” warrant an early release:

(i) The defendant is suffering from a terminal illness.

(ii) The defendant is suffering from a permanent physical or medical condition, or is experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process, that substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the environment of a correctional facility and for which conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement.

(iii) The death or incapacitation of the defendant’s only family member capable of caring for the defendant’s minor child or minor children.

(iv) As determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, there exists in the defendant’s case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with, the reasons described in subdivisions (i), (ii), and (iii).

However, the BOP recently adopted a new policy that allows prison officials to grant compassionate release in a wider variety of cases. The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s current guideline does not cover all of these cases.

Solution: FAMM is urging the Commission to broaden and expand its list to give judges guidance for ruling on compassionate release motions, in line with the BOP’s new compassionate release guidelines.