Sentencing Guideline Changes Coming for Terminally Ill and Others

Good news in the federal sentencing department. Guideline changes set to take effect November 1 unless Congress acts to ban them include a provision giving judges greater discretion in granting compassionate release for dying prisoners.

A safety-valve provision for compassionate release for the dying is in the original sentencing law but it hasn't been effective.

But advocates for inmates say the way the statute is actually carried out is anything but compassionate. Few terminally ill inmates are approved for release, and the bureaucracy is such that even when people are approved, they often die before they get out. The advocates also contend that prison officials have misconstrued the original intent of Congress and interpreted the grounds for release much too narrowly.

Now, in a departure from the tough sentencing policies that it has legislated for more than two decades, Congress is poised to allow guidelines to go into effect starting Nov. 1 that would give federal judges much greater power to release federal inmates.


Even with the new authority to be granted to judges, the Bureau of Prisons will still play a major role.

Although compassionate releases must be ordered by federal judges, the Justice Department's prisons bureau acts as the gatekeeper in bringing early-release requests to the courts.

A Justice Department official last year called the proposed guidelines "an excess of permissiveness" that could be "an incitement to prisoners" to file lawsuits.

The guideline changes could apply to compassionate release for other than terminally ill inmates:

The new guidelines, developed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, would empower judges to commute sentences in "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances.

Some legal experts argue that the original intent of the law was to cover health concerns and a range of purposes such as rewarding prisoners for acts of heroism or assisting the government, giving them the benefit of later changes in applicable laws, or eliminating disparities in sentences they received compared with co-defendants.

One of the proposed guidelines would allow for early release of incarcerated women with minor children in case of death or incapacitation of relatives capable of caring for the children.

These are good questions to ask AG nominee Michael Mukasey at his confirmation hearing this week.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Compassionate release is not a simple matter (none / 0) (#1)
    by JSN on Mon Oct 15, 2007 at 12:51:28 PM EST
    in particular in the case of elderly prisoners who require placement in a nursing home. I wonder is the BOP has the full range of expertise needed to properly evaluate candidates for compassionate release.

    I would prefer to see a review panel created that does have the range of expertise needed to evaluate candidates for compassionate release. The BOP should be represented on such a panel but I don't think they should have the majority of the votes.

    The point is not compassion but (none / 0) (#2)
    by scribe on Mon Oct 15, 2007 at 12:56:45 PM EST
    rather cost-containment.  Geriatric care is expensive and Bureau of Prisons can ill afford spending that money on one old prisoner, when they can probably incarcerate three young ones for the same money.  

    I'm suspecting there's an algorithm somewhere in the BurPris which determines, based on the illnesses the prospective compassionate releasee has, which ones will die first, and which will most benefit the government's fisc to release early.  

    BOP Budget? (none / 0) (#3)
    by brizio on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 08:33:36 PM EST
    Federal Dollars seem endless, and compassion VERY short, I assure you there is no system at all the release prisonors, of the couple of dozen a year that there is a motion made to release, about 1/4 die before the paper work is finished.  IT IS A SHAM.  ANd If you have a GOOD case, the BOP will lie and hold up paper work, instead of comply with the USSC.  It is a peeing contest, we lose!

    The USSG is being ignored by the BOP (none / 0) (#4)
    by brizio on Sun Aug 10, 2008 at 08:59:02 PM EST
     Please read.  http://or.fd.org/symp2.final%20for%20pdf.pdf  Mr. Steve Sady has done his research.  According to Mr. Sady the BOP has not filed even 1 compassionate release based on the congressionally approved USSC guide lines, even though we are approaching the 1 year mark.  How is this possible, should this be illegal?  Who can stop the BOP from doing as it darn well pleases? Is the BOP mocking Congress and the USSC?  If not congress who can make this  insensate bureaucracy listen?