Federal Prisons Plan to Release More Inmates on 'Compassionate' Grounds

By Susan Jones | May 2, 2013 | 11:36 AM EDT

Before the program is expanded, it needs to be managed better, says a report from the Justice Department's inspector general.

(CNSNews.com) - To reduce the growing prison population and escalating prison costs, the U.S Bureau of Prisons says it is now revising its "compassionate release" rules so more ailing and aging inmates can be freed.

A report from the Justice Department's inspector general says the revised rules will expand the compassionate release program by making inmates with a life expectancy of up to 18 months eligible for consideration (versus the current 12 months).

The revised rules also will explain what level of functioning is "extraordinary and compelling" enough for inmates to be considered for release.

The OIG report notes that the Justice Department’s FY 2013 budget request identified $3.2 million in savings to be achieved by expanding the BOP’s compassionate release program.

In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress authorized the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to ask a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence for “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances.

The request can be based on either medical or non-medical conditions that could not reasonably have been foreseen by the judge at the time of sentencing.

The review process begins when an inmate submits a compassionate release request to the warden. That request must include the inmate’s reason for asking, a plan for where the inmate will live and support himself (and receive and pay for medical care) if he’s released.

According to U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines, extraordinary and compelling reasons exist when:

-- The defendant is suffering from a terminal illness.

-- The defendant is suffering from a permanent physical or medical condition, or is experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process;

-- The death or incapacitation of the defendant’s only family member capable of caring for the defendant’s minor children.

-- Any other circumstance which the director of the Bureau of Prisons finds to be an extraordinary and compelling reason.

From 2006 through 2011, the BOP Director considered 211 compassionate release requests that had been approved by both a prison warden and a regional prison director. (BOP did not track the number of requests that never made it that far.)

Of the 208 requests reviewed by OIG, 206 requests were for medical reasons and 2 requests were for non-medical reasons. The Bureau of Prisons director approved 142 (68 percent) of the requests and denied 38 (18 percent). In 28 cases (13 percent), the inmates died before a decision was made by the BOP.

Recidivism and 'undue risk'

The BOP says it tries to operate the compassionate release program in a way that “protects the public from undue risk.” But it also “recognizes that releasing inmates… could result in some increase in the number of inmates who are rearrested after release, particularly if the numbers and types of inmates released under compassionate release authority are expanded.”

OIG asked the FBI for arrest data on the 142 inmates who were released from 2006 through 2011. It found that 5 of them (or 3.5 percent) were rearrested within a three-year period. (By comparison, the general recidivism rate for federal offenders has been estimated to be 41 percent within 3 years after release.)

According to FBI data, the offenses for which the five were rearrested included probation violations, theft, and drug offenses.

Nevertheless, the OIG concludes that “a well-managed compassionate release program can significantly minimize the risk to the public from an inmate’s early release from prison.”

The OIG report also says an "effectively managed" compassionate release program would save money and help BOP manage its ever-growing inmate population.

Before the program is expanded, it needs to be managed better: The OIG report says the existing program "has been poorly managed and implemented inconsistently, likely resulting in eligible inmates not being considered for release and in terminally ill inmates dying before their requests were decided."

The report makes 11 recommendations to improve the way the Bureau of Prisons manages the compassionate release program for inmates who do not present a threat to the community and who present a minimal risk of recidivism.

Among them -- written policies should be updated, timeframes should be established for processing requests, and all inmates should be informed about the compassionate release program.