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US Sentencing Commission Expands Compassionate Release Criteria

On April 5, a divided US Sentencing Commision approved expanding the bases for granting judicial compassionate release applications by federal prisoners.  This move continues an expansion that started with the 2018 First Step Act, which extended the right to seek release directly to sick and elderly inmates. Previously only the Bureau of Prisons could ask a court to release a prisoner in extraordinary or compelling circumstances. Applications skyrocketed during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Prior to his week's amendment, grounds for judicial compassionate release essentially were limited to cases involving advanced age, severe or terminal illness, or the death of the caregiver for an inmate's minor child. Now, judges can also authorize release in cases involving:

  • "unusually long sentences" when the defendant has served 10 years and an intervening change in the law likely would have resulted in a shorter sentence had it been in place at the time of sentencing;
  • victims of sexual assault by corrections officers;
  • the death or incapacitation of care givers for any loved one or family member, not just minor children;
  • "any other circumstance or combination of circumstances that, when considered by themselves or together with any" of the listed reasons, could be construed as extraordinary and compelling.

This catch-all "other reasons" provision will provide judge's the discretion to fashion appropriate relief for extraordinary cases that do not fall neatly within the previously limited criteria.

The change is not without controversy as the three Republican-appointed members of the Commission opposed the revision, finding the proposal exceeds the agency's authority.  The revised guideline will take effect in November 2023 absent Congressional action.

The new compassionate release guidelines approved on Wednesday expanded the criteria for what can qualify as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to grant compassionate release, and it will give judges more discretion to determine when a sentence reduction is warranted.