WASHINGTON, D.C. — FAMM Vice President and General Counsel Mary Price today welcomed the announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that it would modify its process for reviewing applications from prisoners for compassionate release. Ms. Price is the co-author of “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons,” a report published last November by FAMM and Human Rights Watch.
“Today’s announcement is a first and admittedly minor change to a process that needs a significant overhaul. Even this small step, however, should shorten wait times for prisoners near death who wardens agree should be released. Under current BOP policy, these prisoners would be forced to wait while layer after layer of bureaucracy reviews their applications,” said Ms. Price.
As detailed in the FAMM-Human Rights Watch report, Congress gave federal courts authority to grant early release – commonly referred to as “compassionate release” – for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. But they cannot do so absent a motion by the Bureau of Prisons, which rarely submits the prisoners’ cases to the courts, the groups found.
Congress authorized compassionate release because it realized that changed circumstances could make continued imprisonment senseless and inhumane, Human Rights Watch and FAMM said. But if the Bureau of Prisons refuses to bring prisoners’ cases to the courts, judges cannot rule on whether release is warranted. Since 1992, the Bureau of Prisons has averaged annually only two dozen motions to the courts for early release, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000. The Bureau of Prisons does not keep records of the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release.
In the comprehensive report, FAMM and Human Rights Watch urged, among other things, that the BOP streamline its review process so that requests for compassionate release are processed as quickly as possible. The change announced by BOP responds to that recommendation for those requests approved by wardens. In its public notice, the BOP wrote, “We now remove the Regional Director level of review in order to expedite the process.”
Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, who co-authored the compassionate release report, said, “We hope this small reform signals the BOP’s willingness to begin a thorough overhaul of what has to date been a failed program that benefits neither the prisoners who deserve compassionate release, the Bureau of Prisons which confronts severe overcrowding, or the public whose tax dollars are being wasted.”
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