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Federal Prison Compassionate Releases Soared In 2020

By Walter Pavlo - Forbes

March 14, 2022

COVID-19 did something that years of criminal justice reform had failed to do; cut prison populations. The CARES Act, enacted in April 2020 to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed prisons to reduce the number of prisoners in federal institutions by allowing those with minimum security profiles to serve the remainder of their sentence on home confinement. According to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, nearly 7,000 prisoners were placed on home confinement because of the CARES Act. However, many prisoners sought to have their terms cut by asking for compassionate release.

The number of offenders granted compassionate release substantially increased compared to previous years, as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and aided by the First Step Act which gave prisoners more access to federal courts to ask for release. Prior to the enactment of the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform act signed by President Donald Trump in December 2018, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could file compassionate release motions. The First Step Act enables defendants to file these motions directly in federal court after exhausting administrative requirements within the BOP. The First Step Act, coupled with the COVID-19, resulted in a dramatic increase in both motions for and grants of compassionate release.

Aging and sick prisoners led to more requests for compassionate release in 2020.

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Courts granted relief to 24 people in fiscal year 2018 and 145 in 2019, the first full year of the First Step Act. In fiscal year 2020, the number of prisoners granted compassionate release went up to 1,805.

Whether someone received compassionate release depended on which court received the request. The largest proportion of people getting compassionate release in 2020 was from the more liberal First Circuit (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island ... 47.5% of the cases and the Ninth Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, and Hawaii) ... 37.3% of the cases. By contrast, 13.7 percent of those applying for compassionate relief received it from the Fifth Circuit (Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas).

Showing that there is some compassion in the justice system, Courts granted relief to offenders 65 to under 75 years old at a rate almost double the overall grant rate (48.3%).

Regarding the report, Acting Chair Judge Charles Breyer issued a statement, “I am pleased that the Commission has issued this comprehensive report on compassionate release trends in FY 2020. This report follows on the Commission’s significant work in this area, including a report on the One Year Implementation of the First Step Act in 2019 and subsequent quarterly data reports that provide analysis on motions for compassionate release.

Just last week, compassionate release in federal prison became a bigger headline when Attorney General Merrick Garland directed prosecutors to stop limiting defendants' ability to seek compassionate release in most federal plea agreements. The practice, which I wrote about in May 2020, was called out by the same Judge Breyer who rejected a defendant’s plea agreement because it contained the compassionate release restriction.