DOJ to become more compassionate in release program

The United States Department of Justice recently took steps to expand the use of compassionate release, withdrawing the guidelines put in place during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Photo by: CA Dept. of Corrections

In recent months, momentum has built for a relaxation of sentencing standards in federal court.  Attorney General Eric Holder noted that the country’s large prison populations put an unneeded burden on the economy, and efforts should be made to decrease the number of incarcerated Americans.  In response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the United States Department of Justice, expanded the criteria through which inmates in federal prison may request a compassionate release.  Though not an answer to the underlying issue of sentencing standards, the compassionate release program can cut the prison population in America.

The Office of the Inspector General’s report found that an expanded, more efficient compassionate release program could save federal money.

The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act created the United States Sentencing Commissions and eliminated parole for Americans convicted of criminal crimes, drastically changing the sentencing of convicted criminals in federal courts.  The Act also included a lesser known provision, which created compassionate release in cases where there were “extraordinary and compelling reasons” or where the inmate was over seventy years of age and had served more than thirty years of his sentence.  Having eliminated parole, Congress had to create alternatives in cases where the circumstances of an inmate’s situation changed drastically and required lessening the sentence.  Unfortunately, no matter the intention behind the creation of compassionate release, the system did not work as efficiently or help as many as it could have.  This has begun to change recently, though, as the atmosphere surrounding the current sentencing guidelines has soured.

Attorney General Holder’s drive to decrease the prison population has been met with general agreement across all branches of the government.  The issue to this point has been how to bring about reductions in the population, not whether reductions were needed.  As a member of the Executive Branch, however, the Attorney General can only wield so much power without the backing of legislating power of Congress.  One way he can affect change is by adjusting the guidelines used by executive agencies.  A report published by the Office of the Inspector General in April of 2013 found that expanding the compassionate release program would lower the prison population and save money simultaneously.  Additionally, the report found that the compassionate release program had not been properly managed, resulting in inefficiency and a lack of eligible inmates being released.

The Office of the Inspector General discovered that many inmates who may have been eligible for the program did not even know it existed.  Furthermore, the investigation found that there was no system tracking the requests to make sure decisions were being made in a timely manner.  The lack of any central coordination also made decisions from different areas inconsistent with one another.  This inconsistency could be traced to the fact that no guidelines were in place for determining when an inmate was an appropriate candidate for compassionate release.

Although issues existed with the program and how it was run, the report found the program did deal with the major issues facing the country: the cost and number of individuals behind bars.  The program assists in lowering the number of individuals in prison, while saving federal money.  Those inmates who were released were found to re-offend rarely.  Only 3.5% of those compassionately released went on to re-offend, a substantially lower number than that found in the larger group of federal offenders.  These benefits of the program are why the report provided a number of recommendations to expand the program and make it more efficient.

The report by the Office of the Inspector General sparked the Executive Branch to promulgate new policies to expand the compassionate release system.

To remedy the inefficiencies within the compassionate release program, a Program Statement was released in August of 2013 by the Bureau of Prisons, detailing the proposed new procedures.  The program has been expanded to cover more individuals.  This includes the terminally ill, those suffering from debilitating medical conditions, elderly inmates who have served certain amounts of time on their sentence, or the death or incapacitation of a family caregiver or spouse.

Along with the expansion of the program, the statement includes factors to be taken into consideration when evaluating a compassionate release request.  The Bureau created a tracking system in which both inmates and those responding to compassionate release requests can monitor how far along in the process the request is.  The Program Statement is a step in the right direction to expanding and producing a more efficient compassionate release program.  The program addresses only a small portion, however, of the greater issue of overcrowding and spending in the American prison system.

The space and money saved by releasing those eligible can take a significant bite out of the current problems faced by the prison system.

It is too early to know whether the expansion and new regulations detailing the compassionate release system will work any better than the previous system did.  It is a known fact that American prisons are overcrowded, though, and any individuals incarcerated who are eligible for the compassionate release system should be released.  The space and money saved by releasing those eligible can take a significant bite out of the current problems faced by the prison system.

While not a final solution to the issue, if Congress can take action on the underlying issue of mandatory sentencing then many of those eligible for compassionate release would have gotten out earlier, and money as well as space could have been saved.  Combined with Congressional action to limit mandatory sentencing, the expanded compassionate release system can make a significant difference in the overcrowded prisons America faces today.

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About Parker Dozier, Former Senior Staff Writer (13 Articles)
Parker Dozier served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011, where he majored in History and Geography. During law school he externed with the NC Department of Justice, Transportation Section, and Disability Rights NC. Parker graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2014.
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