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Conditions for Compassionate Release from Prisons in the United States during the Covid-19 Pandemic

After receiving a sentence, it is the norm to complete the time of sentencing in prison and be released when your time is served. Within the several criminal justice systems there are possibilities to be released earlier from prison. In the United States, several options are presented such as good time conduct, change in imposed prison sentence, participation in special programs during serving the sentence and compassionate release. Although unusual, the compassionate release frameworks do provide conditions where prisoners can apply for compassionate release based on their personal circumstances. These conditions are stated in §1B1.13 under 18. United States Code § 3582(C)(1)(A) and are based on the applicant’s medical condition, age, family circumstances or providing other reasons. The main prerequisite is that these conditions need to be based on extraordinary and compelling conditions. Hence, a very high threshold needs to be met in order to obtain compassionate release.

According to statistics from 2015, only States of Massachusetts, Illinois and Nebraska do not allow for compassionate release. In the States of Iowa and Maine, the Court has precedent for permitting compassionate release. Luckily, in the past years, several States passed bills in order to provide the option of compassionate release. In 2019, the State of Massachusetts did pass a law where compassionate release is permitted. The State of Illinois joined by passing a similar law in August 2021. In the State of Nebraska, there is only compassionate release via medical parole. In the State of Maine, the Court has precedence for determining compassionate release although federal district courts gained the chance to invoke discretion, looking into the extraordinary and compelling reasons following case law such as U.S. v Fox. This means, even if the Bureau of Prisons’ gives a negative recommendation, the defendant may file an appeal by the 2018 First Step Act. From 2022 on Iowa is the only State in the US that does not grant a form of compassionate release.

With the start of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, there has been an increase in the application for compassionate release based on mental health issues and other health conditions in prisons. Additionally, prisons being overloaded in their capacity, social distancing being almost impossible and medical staff at prisons being scarce looking into parole eligible prisoners did become a norm. Marking an interpretation of lowering the threshold of “extraordinary and compelling conditions”. In the light of federal sentencing statistics on compassionate release, numbers rapport the accuracy of the previous statement. In May 2022, The United States Federal Commission published a 2020-2021 data report on compassionate release. In 2020, 1,303 applications were granted the motion based on the reasoning COVID-19/pandemic, which made 61 percent of the granted cases in total. In 2021, 1,273 applications based on COVID-19/pandemic were granted motions and made up 50.2 percent of the total motions submitted. This means that, overall, due to the pandemic, more than 50 percent of prisoners are released under compassionate release. In other words, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” are more likely to be granted within a lower threshold when the whole world faces “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” such as a full blown pandemic.

For further reading please see the following link: United States Sentencing Commission March 2022, Compassionate Release: The Impact of the First Step Act and COVID-19 Pandemic https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2022/20220310_compassionate-release.pdf

Copyright: Ebu City,City Jail. The Philippines, ICRC.

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