A comprehensive review of the federal prison system’s compassionate release program revealed a lack of standards for the evaluation of whether an inmate qualifies for a reduction in sentence, according to a U.S. Justice Department report published today.
The department's Office of the Inspector General found Bureau of Prisons staff had "varied and inconsistent understandings of circumstances that warranted consideration of compassionate release." Prison officials, the report also concluded, don't have effective procedures in place to inform inmates about the potential for compassionate release.
Under the program, the bureau can ask a federal judge to end a sentence based on "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances that were not present at the time the defendant was sentenced. In the six-year review period ending in 2011, the report said 142 inmates were approved for, and received, compassionate release. Click here for a copy of the report.
The DOJ report cited "multiple failures" in the implementation of compassionate release. The report found, among other things, disparate criteria for eligibility. For instance: at some prisons, only inmates with a life expectancy of six months or less were eligible. At others, inmates with a life expectancy of under a year were deemed eligible.
Twenty-eight inmates out of 208 who were cleared for early release by a warden died in custody before the BOP director made a final decision, according to the DOJ investigation.
Federal prison officials, the DOJ report said, are revising compassionate release regulations. The DOJ report recommended prison officials expand the use of compassionate release to cover medical and non-medical conditions "for inmates who do not present a threat to the community and who present a minimal risk of recidivism."
The DOJ report found a 3.5 percent recidivism rate—5 inmates out of 142—among the prisoners who were let out of prison early through the compassionate release program. (The report said the general recidivism rate for federal offenders is estimated to be 41 percent.)
"The OIG recognizes that approving and releasing more eligible inmates through the compassionate release program could result in some increase in the number of inmates who are rearrested," the report said. "But the recidivism data we found demonstrates that a carefully and effectively managed program can minimize that risk if careful consideration is given to an inmate’s potential risk to the community as part of the assessment process."
DOJ's inspector general's office said this afternoon that prison officials provided the department a guidance memorandum that addresses medical criteria for consideration of any reduction in an inmate's prison sentence under the compassionate release program.
The criteria include: inmates diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease whose life expectancy is 18 months or less, and inmates who have an incurable, progressive illness or have suffered a debilitating injury from which they will not recover.