Federal authorities denied nearly 80 percent of the requests by prisoners for compassionate release last year, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC).
Data for the 2020 calendar year provided by federal courts around the country show that 2,549 motions for early release were granted out of a total 12,138 filed, or roughly 21 percent, the USSC said in a report released Thursday.
While the percentage of approvals is small, it actually represents an increase compared to past years―reflecting fears that American’s overcrowded prisons were serving as “super-spreaders” for COVID-19, endangering not only inmates, but correctional staff and their families.
Offenders in federal custody can have their sentences reduced for “extraordinary and compelling reasons” if they show they no longer represent a danger to the community. The regulations were largely designed to apply to older prisoners suffering from a terminal or disabling illness.
In practice, however, most such petitions are turned down.
Between 2013 and 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approved just six percent of the approximately 5,600 appeals for reduced sentences by federal inmates, according to data analyzed by The Marshall Project and The New York Times.
Nevertheless, many critics charge that the high number of petitions for compassionate release in 2020, and the relatively small percentage of approvals in the midst of a national health emergency, together underline the flaws of a system that perpetuates the inequalities of mass incarceration.
“Compassionate release is not a transparent and linear process, but an unpredictably ordered series of obstacles,” the Prison Policy Initiative said in a policy brief last year.
“Even when a compassionate release system operates efficiently and fairly, the majority of people in prison are still not eligible for it. As currently constituted, these programs exclude too many people…these systems were never designed for quick responses during a global pandemic.”
Bureaucratic obstacles relaxed after the 2018 First Step Act gave federal inmates the right to directly petition courts for release if their initial requests were rejected by the BOP.
The outbreak of the pandemic added more urgency.
According to the BOP, about one-third of those held in federal custody ― more than 46,000 individuals ― tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020. Moreover, a significant percentage of federal incarcerees suffered from chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, that placed them at greater risk for contracting the disease.
Those fears appears to have made a positive difference in the rate of approval.
But still not enough to address the real needs of sick and elderly inmates who have been behind bars for decades, and pose little risk to public safety, say advocacy groups.
The PPI policy brief called on authorities to “look beyond compassionate release” and consider strategies like expedited parole and mass commutations “to slow the spread of the pandemic and prevent a needless tragedy behind bars.”
The USSC Data Report and Tables can be downloaded here.