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COMPASSIONATE RELEASE FROM FEDERAL PRISON – COVID-19

Can I Get Compassionate Release From The Bureau Of Prisons?

Compassionate Release is a way to get relief from the crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its threat to federal bureau of prison inmates.

The statistics are alarming. Federal prisons can be a breeding ground for COVID-19. For example, the Federal Correctional Institution Lompac is a low security facility in Santa Barbara County California. The BOP reports that out of a reported inmate population of 1,162, the facility reported that 886 inmates tested positive for COVID-19. The three highest death rates in BOP facilities are for Elkton FCI (Ohio) 9 deaths, Butner Medium FCI (North Carolina) 7 deaths, and Oakdale FCI (Louisiana) 7 deaths.

This raises the question of what can be done for prisoners finding themselves in a BOP facility facing the prospect of infection by COVID-19. One avenue of relief that may be immediately apparent is the “Compassionate Release”

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 included a provision authorizing federal courts to reduce prison sentences under limited circumstances constituting “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The United States Sentencing Commission provided the definition for extraordinary and compelling reasons, and the Bureau of Prisons was given authority to file motions with the federal court where they identified a prisoner who met the criteria. Once the motion was filed, the Federal District Court had the authority to reduce the prisoners sentence.

Up to the time the First Step Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President in January 2019 motions by the BOP for compassionate release were very rarely filed. The BOP had been given power to create an administrative process for making requests for compassionate release, and the process that BOP put in place was long; very long. The process was not only long, but unwieldy and unforgiving in terms of the required criteria and the meeting of countless deadlines and appeals.

The First Step Act contained a provision that was meant to remedy the BOP’s reluctance to file sentence reduction motion and to circumvent the administrative process. In a nutshell, the First Step Act gave a prisoner a right to take his request to court. The First Step Act provided that a prisoner could file a motion directly with the Federal District Court under two circumstances: 1) After they had fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal, and the failure of the BOP to file a motion, or 2) Filing 30 days after the date the warden received a request for compassionate release from the prisoner.

FEDERAL COURTS MAY REDUCE SENTENCES UNDER THE COMPASSIONATE RELEASE STATUTE

A Federal District Court now has the authority to reduce a previously imposed sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) “if it finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction” and “that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.”

THE EXHAUSTION REQUIREMENT AND 30 DAY WAITING PERIOD

One major roadblock in obtaining a reduced sentence is the requirement that the prisoner exhaust all administrative remedies before filing with the court. This issue has come up in nearly all of the Compassionate Release petitions that we have reviewed which were filed in the last few weeks based upon the COVID-19 outbreak. A number of courts have ruled that the requirement for administrative exhaustion is not a jurisdictional rule, but is instead a non-jurisdictional claims processing rule. This allows the courts to relax the otherwise rigid requirements of the statute.


At least one Court has specifically held that the requirement for administrative exhaustion is not strictly mandatory because the statute itself provides a way to fully bypass the administrative process with the BOP. This is done by the prisoner making a request to the warden and waiting 30 days before filing their own motion with the court. Therefore, the administrative exhaustion requirement is not mandatory and under the circumstances it is much more expedient to make a direct request to the warden of the facility for relief under the statute. The warden will either grant the relief and file the motion on behalf of the prisoner, deny the request outright, or simply fail to act for a period of 30 days.
In any of these scenarios, the prisoner either gets the relief requested or has a green light to file a motion with the court directly.

Some courts have gone so far as to find that the 30 day waiting period is also subject to waiver or relief under equitable principles. One New York District Court found that the application of equitable exceptions to Section 3582(c)(1)(A) is also consistent with Congressional intent, because the law was designed to enhance public safety and make changes to Bureau of Prison policies and procedures to ensure prisoner and guard safety and security. The court went on to note that “…neither purpose is served by keeping a vulnerable individual incarcerated in precarious conditions that pose risks to not only his own health and safety, but also to the health and safety of the prison staff and the communities to which they return each day.”

In order for a Federal District Court to grant a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A), a prisoner must show that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A)(i). The prisoner must also show “that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.”

The United States Sentencing Guidelines in § 1B1.13 outlines four circumstances that constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that could warrant a sentence reduction. These are: (1) the defendant’s medical condition; (2) the defendant’s age; (3) family circumstances; and (4) other reasons as determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.

IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE IS IN A FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISON FACILITY, THEY MAY BE ELIGIBLE TO FILE A MOTION WITH THE COURT FOR RELEASE UNDER THE COMPASSIONATE RELEASE PROVISIONS OF THE U.S. CODE.

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