Federal judges approved more than 2,500 compassionate release requests in 2020, or about 21% of the more than 12,000 filed, according to new data released this week by the US Sentencing Commission. Oregon had the highest approval rating; federal judges granted 68.5% of compassionate release requests (63 out of 92). Judges in the U.S. Virgin Islands did not grant any claims, although they only made five motions.
For those incarcerated, the odds of securing compassionate release in the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts covered the wide gap between these two extremes. The judges focused on whether a person was at a higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19 because of their existing health issues or age, but having an under-health condition. jacent or being older does not guarantee success. The big differences in outcomes that incarcerated people faced depended on which court they applied to and underscored the largely untested and sometimes inconsistent legal landscape as they tried to get out of COVID-19 hotspots.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the only member of what should be a U.S. sentencing commission of seven, said in a telephone interview that the “sizeable disparities” reflected the fact that the commission did not ‘had not reached a quorum since 2018. “I’m the commission,” he joked. The First Step Act, a package of criminal justice reforms that Congress passed in late 2018, made it easier for incarcerated people to seek compassionate release in the courts. But because the commission has not had a quorum for years, it has not been able to change the directions judges rely on when deciding these cases – changes that could have helped ensure an approach. more “uniform” during a pandemic, Breyer said. .
“We were asked by Congress to establish criteria for this, and of course at the time we didn’t have and we still don’t have a quorum to act,” Breyer said. (Former President Donald Trump’s choices for the committee have not received a vote in the Senate, and President Joe Biden has yet to announce the candidates.)
Over the past year and a half, the way judges rendered compassionate release decisions presented very different approaches to balancing the health risks people faced in prisons as COVID-19 continued. to spread in relation to the other factors that traditionally go into these decisions. This included things such as the person’s age, the length of their sentence they had already served, the nature of the crimes for which they had been convicted, and the likelihood that they would reoffend if released. A man who won a compassionate release last year described the experience to BuzzFeed News as feeling like “pulled the lottery”.
To date, 238 people have died from COVID-19 while in federal custody, and nearly 45,000 federally incarcerated people have contracted the disease, according to publicly available statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP ). There are currently more than 153,000 people in federal penitentiaries; of these, around 77,000 (around 50%) are fully immunized.
New data from the US Sentencing Commission shows how results vary even within the same state. There have been 497 compassionate release applications filed in the Southern District of Florida, the most of any district in the country; 100 of them have been granted (around 20%). Just north, in Florida’s Middle District, 430 petitions have been filed, the third largest group in the country; only 28 of these requests were accepted (or 6.5%). In the North Florida District, fewer petitions were filed overall – there were 98 requests in total – but an even larger proportion, over 32%, were granted.
North Carolina was another state where districts saw a similar number of compassionate release requests with very different results. In the Western District of North Carolina, judges granted 2.1% of claims – 5 of 241 – while in the Eastern District of North Carolina, 25.9% of claims – 55 of 212 – were granted.
Compassionate release experts said the data as a whole illustrated the different experiences incarcerated people have in trying to achieve compassionate release during the pandemic. But they also cautioned against reading too much of the specific percentages attached to a particular district to understand the situation on the ground. Judges each have their own approach to post-sentencing issues, and one district may be bound by different appellate court precedents from another. Results may also depend on which prison facility an accused convicted by a particular court is most likely to be affected to, and how that facility has been affected by COVID-19.
Federal Public Defender’s offices in each district may have different approaches to pursuing these claims for their clients, which can lead to different results in court, said Douglas Berman, professor at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law of the ‘Ohio State University. Berman said he hoped to see more Sentencing Board data points in the future; he had previously lamented in a blog he ran on sentencing issues that the “bare bones” report did not include information on demographics or details of the underlying criminal cases.
But Berman said data from the Sentencing Commission largely showed that judges, like the rest of the country, had different opinions on the extent of the new health risk posed by COVID-19.
“Just as COVID has created uncertainty in every other part of our world, I think the judges had an incredible range of different reactions to how COVID should influence their new discretion here,” Berman said. “Progressive judges… saw COVID as a far greater existential threat to the lives of prisoners than people who, politically and socially, were in communities where it’s like, ‘Hey, maybe that’s like a bad flu, but we don’t let prisoners out because they get bad flu.
Prior to the First Step Act, people in federal custody could not file compassionate release applications in court on their own; only the BOP could make a request, and it rarely did. Under the new law, incarcerated people must first file a request with the BOP, and then can go to a judge if that request is denied or if they do not get a response within 30 days. Project Marshall reported that the BOP recently submitted data to Congress showing that only 36 claims were granted out of more than 31,000 during the pandemic. The report also noted that prison authorities have released more than 23,700 people from house arrest, meaning they may have to return to detention later.
Maria Morris, senior counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the latest version of the Sentencing Commission included other data points that demonstrated the low level of success people continued to have in seeking release for compassion with the BOP before going to court. Of the more than 2,500 requests judges granted in 2020, only 17 were submitted by the BOP, meaning the rest were filed by incarcerated people whose requests were rejected or never received a complaint. response from the prison authorities.
“What [the data] shows that almost every case that the courts have deemed appropriate for compassionate release, to the Bureau of Prisons, they have said no, ”Morris said.
A BOP spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.