To: Interested parties
From: Rabiah Burks, FAMM Director of Communications
Date: November 8, 2018
Re: FAMM makes it easier for members of Congress to help families with compassionate release
FAMM is ramping up efforts to improve compassionate release programs by making it easier for members of Congress to help families of the incarcerated. In a memo to congressional staff today, FAMM explains how congressional offices can quickly provide the answers their constituents need about the status of their loved ones’ compassionate release petitions by contacting the congressional liaison at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
The memo is the latest contribution to an effort spearheaded by FAMM aimed at improving compassionate release. Today’s guidance builds on months of analysis, advocacy, and outreach – including the release of a FAMM report in July that found that compassionate release programs exist in one form or another in all but one of the 50 states, but rarely result in releases, regardless of how compelling the case or the prisoner’s unique circumstances. FAMM is also engaged in cutting-edge litigation challenging the BOP’s compassionate release practices. For example, we filed an amicus brief in Avery v. Andrews (No. 18-6996) in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. We also launched the Campaign for Compassionate Release initiative in February of this year.
FAMM’s State-by-State Report Reveals Compassionate Release Programs Are Rarely Used, Despite Expense to Taxpayers to House Elderly and Ill Prisoners
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, with 2.2 million currently behind bars – and the number of incarcerated has grown exponentially, ballooning 500 percent from 1985 to 2016. As we work to decrease incarceration rates nationally, a number of jurisdictions are considering how to revamp their compassionate release laws.
Over the past 17 years, FAMM has been at the forefront of compassionate release reform efforts in the states. FAMM’s comprehensive, state-by-state report on the early-release programs available to prisoners, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States,” shines a light on the inhumanity of keeping sick, dying, and elderly prisoners behind bars and makes a series of recommendations for reform:
- Expand and improve compassionate release policies in all states.
- Ensure that eligibility criteria is fair and just.
- Establish deadlines to keep applications moving.
- Publicize compassionate release programs and policies.
- Provide assistance with post-release planning.
- Require data collection and reporting.
Our report takes a deep dive into the regulations and requirements of compassionate release programs in each state – including the varying categories of release, eligibility criteria, and reporting. The analysis also reveals a troubling number of barriers faced by prisoners and their families when applying for early release. The report is accompanied by a state-by-state comparison chart, 21 recommendations for policymakers, and 51 individual state memos. There is also a video, “Compassionate Release: Not a Right or Left Issue,” which features perspectives from diverse voices.
Barriers to Federal Compassionate Release
The BOP’s chronic failure to grant compassionate release to sick and elderly prisoners who pose very little risk to public safety is well-documented. In August of 2017, 12 U.S. senators wrote to the BOP seeking information on the number of individuals granted early release under the compassionate release program. In its response dated January 16, 2018, the BOP revealed that the agency granted only 306 petitions and denied more than 2,400 over the past four years. Prisoners, many facing imminent death, waited an average of 4.7 months to 6.5 months for a response, and 81 prisoners died while waiting for an answer in this period.
In August of 2018, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) declined to include a study that would have examined the BOP’s dysfunctional compassionate release program on its list of priorities for 2019. In October, a bipartisan group of senators asked that the commission proceed with the study. The study would look at whether or not the current USSC guidelines effectively encourage the director of the BOP to file motions for compassionate release.
Campaign for Compassionate Release Working to Address Longstanding Issues at Federal and State Levels
In February, FAMM helped launch the Campaign for Compassionate Release, a coalition of 36 diverse organizations and individuals supporting the creation, expansion, and robust use of state and federal compassionate release mechanisms.
The campaign’s statement of principles focuses on the humanitarian, public safety, and economic benefits of granting early release to elderly prisoners, those with disabilities, or prisoners facing extreme family circumstances. While the campaign will target both federal and state policies, the first phase of work centers on reforms to the federal compassionate release program. Last year, many of the campaign’s member organizations and others sent a letter to then-BOP Director Mark Inch, urging him to expand use of the federal program.
This month, FAMM kicked off #WeNeed60, our push to pass the FIRST STEP Act, which would address current barriers to federal compassionate release, among many other issues. If passed, the act would reform the BOP’s compassionate release process to:
- Allow prisoners to appeal denials of compassionate release to federal courts after all other BOP remedies have been exhausted, or after at least 30 days have passed since the request was submitted;
- Require annual data reporting on BOP’s use of compassionate release;
- Create an expedited timeline for BOP consideration of compassionate release requests of terminally ill prisoners;
- Permit family members, lawyers, and BOP staff to help prisoners file compassionate release requests;
- Require improved notice to BOP staff and prisoners about when compassionate release is available and how to apply for it.
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.
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