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Compassionate Release

New! Grading the States: the State Compassionate Release Report Card Project

Our justice system imprisons people to deter crime, punish those who commit crimes, protect the public, and rehabilitate prisoners who will one day return home. At FAMM, we believe prisoners should be released when they are too debilitated to commit further crimes, too compromised to benefit from rehabilitation, or too impaired to be aware of punishment.

FAMM works on compassionate release and provides assistance to stakeholders, lawmakers interested in improving compassionate release rules and performance.  FAMM also houses the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse to ensure that eligible federal prisoners asking the court for release are represented by trained counsel.

Tell Your Lawmakers: Support Compassionate Release!

What is Compassionate Release?

The federal system, the District of Columbia, and nearly every state in the nation have some form of early release for incarcerated people when circumstances emerge that make continued imprisonment unjustifiable. Usually these programs provide for early release of terminally ill, elderly, very sick, or incapacitated people.  There is not one system of compassionate release; instead, there are 52 variations on a theme. Relief takes different forms depending on the jurisdiction, from temporary furloughs, to parole, to the reduction of the sentence to time served.

While very different, all the compassionate release programs share one unfortunate feature —  they are seldom used.

FAMM aims to fix that.

FAMM works on compassionate release by providing in-depth information about compassionate release laws and practice in the District of Columbia, states, and the federal system.  We advocate for improved programs and assist stakeholders, policy advocates, affected families, and lawmakers interested in reforming compassionate release rules and performance. FAMM also co-sponsors the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse to ensure that eligible federal prisoners asking the court for relief are represented by trained counsel.

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The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse

In January, the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a memo stating that the CARES Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to return people with extended home confinement terms to prison once the Covid emergency period is over. FAMM has been working hard to ensure everyone on home confinement stays home. One effort works to connect people on CARES Act Home Confinement with public defenders and pro bono attorneys who can help file compassionate release motions.

We are pausing collecting new applicants to the Home Confinement Compassionate Release project. During this period, we will work to recruit volunteer attorneys so we can place current applicants. If you’ve applied and not been assigned to a lawyer, you will hear from us soon by email.

The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse is a joint effort of FAMM, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee (WLC) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). The Clearinghouse was formed after the passage of the First Step Act in order to support those seeking relief under the new law.

At first, the Clearinghouse focused on those who were terminally ill or profoundly debilitated—matching individuals in federal prison with federal defenders or pro bono attorneys to potentially bring a motion on their behalf.

When COVID-19 entered federal prisons, FAMM and partners launched an Emergency COVID-19 Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, in order to help those with medical conditions that made them vulnerable to severe consequences from COVID-19.  With the help of wonderful volunteers, the Clearinghouse screened and placed thousands of cases, resulting in hundreds of releases.  Some of those releases were profiled by our storytelling team. Take a minute to read about Damiene Lewis, Ernest Boykin, Lea Anne Blystone, and Margarita Zamora.

As case law continues to develop around what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justifying compassionate release, the Clearinghouse works to screen and place those serving lengthy sentences that would not be imposed today as part of the Excessive Sentence Project.

Can the Clearinghouse Help You or Your Loved One?

Please note that the Clearinghouse is only for those who have been federally charged, and cannot assist with state cases.  At this time, the Clearinghouse is focused on three areas:

Terminal illness or profound debilitation

  • If you or your loved one are in federal prison with a terminal diagnosis or a condition that profoundly affects their ability to function in prison, please reach out to us at research@famm.org. We cannot promise we can assist in every case.

Excessive Sentences

  • We are looking for individuals sentenced prior to January 2019 serving:
      • 924 (c) stacking: A mandatory minimum gun sentence of at least 25 years for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924 (c) for two or more gun charges;
      • 851 enhancement: A mandatory minimum of 20 years or a mandatory minimum of life for a drug conviction under 21 U.S.C. § 841 where prior convictions were used to increase the 10-year mandatory minimum.
    • Please be advised that we can only accept federal cases, however, be aware that some courts will not entertain motions for these kind of sentences as some Courts of Appeals have ruled the compassionate release statute may not be used to address excessive sentences.
    • If you or your loved one might fit these criteria, please reach out to us at research@famm.org. We cannot promise we can assist in every case.

Attorney Volunteers

If you are an attorney interested in volunteering with the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, please reach out to Mary Price, FAMM General Counsel, at mprice@famm.org and Elizabeth Blackwood, Counsel & Director for the First Step Act Resource Center at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) at eblackwood@nacdl.org.

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Report: “Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States”

“Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States,” is a comprehensive, state-by-state report on the early-release programs available to prisoners struggling with certain extraordinary circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness.

The report takes a deep dive into the regulations and requirements of these 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.

Read the Report

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