Understanding Compassionate Release
Compassionate Release is a reduction in sentence granted by a court allowing for the immediate release of a federal inmate from confinement. When Congress amended the process for granting compassionate release through the First Step Act in 2018, it gave inmates a new ability to petition the court directly for compassionate release rather than having to rely solely on the BOP to do it for them.
As COVID-19 continues to plague prisons across America and the inmate death toll rises, district courts have been flooded with requests for compassionate release. A judge can reduce a sentence when “extraordinary and compelling” reasons exist and warrant such a reduction. Courts have largely agreed the COVID-19 pandemic is an “extraordinary and compelling” circumstance. However, the existence of COVID-19 alone is not enough. Inmates who are particularly vulnerable to serious health complications if they contract the virus are most likely to be granted compassionate release, but only after consideration of other factors such as the nature of the crime for which they are incarcerated, potential danger to the community, behavior while incarcerated, rate of infection in their particular facility, amount of sentence already served, and whether there is a verifiable reentry plan. The analysis is complex.
To date, there have been 220 federal inmate deaths attributed to COVID-19 infection along with four staff members. It is unclear how availability of the vaccine might impact these numbers and whether the trend in favor of granting motions for compassionate release will shift if the numbers decline. Until then, prisons will likely continue to be hot spots for the virus and courts will continue to be inundated with inmate pleas for release.