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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