Rabiah Burks, 202-822-6700
FAMM, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, NACDL Launch Emergency Compassionate Release Effort
In a massive pro bono effort, our groups are recruiting, training, and supporting lawyers who agree to represent individuals in federal prisons eligible for compassionate release and those at special risk due to COVID-19
WASHINGTON – In an effort to save as many lives as possible during the coronavirus pandemic, The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse launched an emergency release initiative that is designed to match qualified individuals in federal prisons who are applying for compassionate release with free legal counsel. The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse is a collaborative pro bono effort from FAMM, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary efforts,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “We do not know how many vulnerable people we will be able to get out before COVID-19 spreads, but we are going to do everything in our power to secure release for as many as possible. This is not only a matter of criminal justice — it is a public health imperative.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made release for those who qualify for compassionate release under current criteria due to illness or age more urgent. We also believe that people who are vulnerable due to underlying health conditions or age to serious illness or death should they contract the virus must be considered for release as well. The Centers for Disease Control consider the most vulnerable to include people over 65 years old, and people with a condition that affects their lungs, heart, kidney, immune system, or who have another serious chronic medical condition. There are more than 10,000 people in federal prison who are over 60 years old. Many are in poor health.
The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse-COVID 19 Project recruits, trains, and provides resources to participating lawyers.
“The outpouring of support from law firms around the country in response to this crisis is gratifying,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “We have already seen remarkable success with cases handled through the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse over the past year. The rapid spread of COVID-19 in prison demands urgent action to protect vulnerable prisoners from infection, provide safety to staff and ensure that our public health system is not overwhelmed by a prison-based epidemic.”
Federal law provides that individuals whose requests for compassionate release have been denied or ignored by the Bureau of Prisons, or for whom the exhaustion requirement is waivable, may file a motion in court. The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse has received over 400 requests for assistance by people in prison since COVID-19 concerns began. Over 300 lawyers, from solo practitioners to lawyers at large law firms, as well as federal public defenders, social workers and other advocates have answered the call.
”The coronavirus epidemic is a medical emergency,” said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer. “It is America’s health care workers who are on the front lines. They and all the essential workers providing food, supplies, and transportation are the heroes in this struggle. But lawyers too can help save lives. Historically, compassionate release provided an opportunity for the very sick, infirm individuals in federal prisons to enjoy the dignity and comfort of ending their lives surrounded by loved ones. But now, we can use this law to save lives that otherwise might be lost to this raging virus. Already hundreds of lawyers have volunteered. They too are heroes.”
While many attorneys have already answered the call to help, the Clearinghouse continues actively to recruit additional attorneys and law firms to join in the effort. One can volunteer at crclearinghouse.org/training.
FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safeguard taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe. Founded in 1991, FAMM is helping transform America’s criminal justice system by uniting the voices of impacted families and individuals and elevating the issues all across the country.
Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL’s many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.