Compassionate Releases of Federal Prisoners Surged During the Pandemic

U.S. released a report that is new. A new USSC report shows that federal prisoners were granted “compassionate release” in significant numbers. The reason was the COVID-19 Pandemic, which made it possible to exonerate those who are particularly susceptible to death from the disease. 1 805 inmates were released on compassionate bail during FY 2020 (October 2019-September 2020), more than 12 times what was done in 2019. The coronavirus, which spread rapidly and poses a threat to prisoners who are vulnerable, was responsible for nearly all the increase in compassionate release.

Atilano Dominguez was one of the prisoners. He had already served 27 years in prison for his marijuana offenses. These prisoners were As There are reasons‘s C.J. Ciaramella stated that Dominguez, who was 80 years of age and “mostly in a wheelchair” due to arthritis in his knees, reported Ciaramella in 2020. Federal prosecutors claimed that Dominguez was “a recidivism threat” and that his sentence of life imprisonment was given with the understanding that he might die from any number of diseases in prison. COVID-19, as they saw it was, was “one more chance to die in prison.” Donald Graham of the United States District Court rejected Dominguez’s argument. Dominguez was released shortly after a surge in coronavirus cases nationwide on September 22nd 2020.

A federal law permits courts to decrease a prisoner’s sentence for “extraordinary, compelling reasons”, or if the prisoner has completed at least 30 of his sentences. The Bureau of Prisons must determine that he “is not a threat to the safety of other persons or the community”. Before the FIRST STEP act, which was the 2018 package of criminal justice reforms, courts were limited to changing a sentence in response to motions from the Bureau of Prisons. After they had “fully exhausted” all administrative appeals, prisoners could file motions under the FIRST STEP Act.

The change was immediately effective. Even though the 2019 number of compassionate release (145) is small in relation to a system that imprisons more than 150,000, it still surpassed the FY 2018 figure of five. In the context of a system that incarcerates more than 150,000 people, there was a spike in compassionate releases granted in 2019. More than 7,000 motions were received by courts, with 96 percent being filed directly from prisoners. Only 25% of those motions were granted. In 72 percent of these cases, judges cited COVID-19’s risks as the reason they granted relief.

The average time that prisoners were granted relief was 80 months, which is 6.7 years. Half of the sentences had been completed. For prisoners sentenced for less than one year, the success rate was 57%, 20% for sentences of 120 to 240 months and 30% for those sentenced for more than 20 years. Average reductions were about 5 years. This was 43 percent off the original sentence.

A prisoner can be eligible for compassionate release if they are over the age of 52. That consideration is especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, prisoners receiving relief were 52 years old. This was compared with 45 in the case of people who denied their motions. Dominguez, an older prisoner, was more likely than others to request shorter sentences. For example, federal prisoners aged 75 and older accounted only for 0.4 percent, but for 2 percent motions (62 percent) which were granted. 22 percent of prisoners were older than 44, but less than 55 years old. They also accounted to 25 percent for motions which were granted 28% of the time.

The federal prison population includes 45 percent of all drug-related inmates. They account for 52 percent and 50% of motions that were granted. Next was firearm offenses which made up 12 percent of all motions and 13% of early release requests. This means that nearly two-thirds (or almost all) of those whose sentences were reduced had been convicted for crimes such as illegal gun possession or drug dealing, but not necessarily involving identifiable victims.

According to the sentencing commission, “extraordinary reasons” could include a serious physical or medical condition or a severe functional or cognitive impairment.
“substantially reduces the defendant’s self-care abilities in the correctional environment and is unlikely to heal.” Guidelines also include the possibility that the prisoner is older than 65 and “experiencing serious deterioration of physical or mental health due to the aging process.” He has already served 10 years of his sentence or 75 percent.

Other factors to consider are “family circumstances”, including the death or incapacitation of the caretaker of the minor defendant child or the incapacitation or spouse of registered partner of defendant when they are the sole caregiver. If the Bureau of Prisons considers these factors “extraordinary or compelling”, they may be taken into consideration.

The most common reason given for prisoner relief was COVID-19 risk, as it was mentioned in almost three-quarters (75%) of the compassionate release cases. In 4 percent of cases, terminal illness was mentioned by courts. Other medical conditions were mentioned in 11%. Only 3% of compassionate release cases mentioned age or rehabilitation, and only 2% cited “family circumstances”. Three percent of the cases were cited by courts for sentence-related reasons. This was usually because the court was concerned that the prisoner would be sentenced less under retroactive reforms.

Two-thirds (33%) of all cases cited in courts denied relief because they could not prove an “extraordinary and compelling reason”. In a third of the cases, failure to exhaust administrative recourses was cited. The next most common reason was “danger of the public”, which was mentioned less than 25% of the times. This makes it difficult to understand why so many of these prison inmates are still behind bars.

Many federal prison inmates are older than the general population, which suggests that recidivism decreases with time. A 2017 USSC report found that 65 percent of federal prison inmates under 30 were rearrested within 8 years. About 16 percent of the rearrest rates for older prisoners was one-quarter as high. Moreover, assault was the most common offense after release. However, older offenders were more likely to be arrested for “public orders” like probation violations.

The age of the convicts was also strongly related to their conviction rates: 48 percent were under 25 years old when released; 16 percent were over 50 to 54, 15 percent were between 55 and 59, 12 percent were below 60, 11% for 65- to 64, and 7% were older than 65.

The average age of prisoners denied compassionate release was 45. Many fell in these relatively high-risk groups. The new USSC report shows that more than half of all federal prisoner are over 45 years old. Remember that nearly half the federal prison population is made up of drug offenders. These criminals may only be involved in peaceful transactions which the government prohibits.

Due to the pandemic, 2020 saw an abnormally large number of compassionate releases. The USSC noted that “after the study period had ended”, “the number…”
It has been a significant decrease in the number of people who have received compassionate release. However, the 11% who were allowed compassionate release in 2020 was only a small fraction of the total federal prison population. Congress is responsible for setting federal penalties. President Joe Biden also has that power. He promised that he would “broadly utilize” this power. But he hasn’t yet used it. This might be a good time to think about the possibility of more compassion.