By Christopher Zoukis
Midway through the second Obama term, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and some other government agencies began to show greater interest in “compassionate release” — systematically reducing sentences of federal inmates with “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, such as advanced age, debilitating or terminal illness — for being released early.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder predicted it would be used much more frequently; both BOP and the Sentencing Commission revised their guidelines on its use; and DOJ’s inspector general helped quantify the savings BOP could realize by releasing infirm inmates for whom there was no compelling reason to keep incarcerated.
What was not clear, however, was how much action was backing up all the talk, since — unlike other forms of clemency — data on compassionate release is not regularly reported by the White House, or elsewhere in the executive branch. Eventually, last summer, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the appropriations committee handling DOJ, added language to the agency’s funding bill directing BOP to provide, within 60 days of enactment, five years’ annual data on requests, recommendations, grants and denials of compassionate release. A dozen Senators jointly sent a letter supporting the need for that information.
BOP provided some — but not all — of the requested data, and it did not make a persuasive picture of BOP’s supposed dedication to compassionate release. One sharp-edged question from the Senate asked how many inmates had died in custody while waiting for BOP to decide on a compassionate release application. The answer: 81 since 2014. During that same period, BOP headquarters turned down 2,405 requests, accepting only 306.
Looking at the reasons compassionate release requests were made, and the number of those requests granted by category, debilitating medical conditions were the most frequently made, but seldom got positive recommendations (only 181 of 1,106). Requests for terminal medical conditions fared better (recommendations made in 405 of 817 cases). Requests were made for 477 elderly inmates with medical conditions, but only 117 won warden approval. Even lower rates applied for recommendations sought for child caregivers (33 of 282), the elderly (87 of 268), care for spouse/partner (15 of 109), and miscellaneous (just 4 of 123).
And prison wardens’ recommendations were no guarantee of success. Compassionate release recommendations came about three times more often than did BOP headquarters approval. Overall, wardens made 842 recommendations for compassionate leave reductions in sentence, compared with the 306 approved by BOP headquarters.
The most-cited reasons for denying compassionate release requests were: not meeting criteria for terminal or debilitating conditions; conditions not affecting inmates’ ability to function in prison; insufficient time served on sentence to qualify for elderly release criteria; failure to prove the inmate was the only family member able to care for a child, spouse or registered partner; and lack of a stable residence and release plan.
How long did it take BOP to reach its decisions? For compassionate release requests that were granted, the processing time averaged almost five months (141 days), but it took nearly seven months (196 days) on average to process a request that wound up being denied.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com