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Legislation to Improve Compassionate Prison Release Process

February 28, 2018, 8:44 AM HST (Updated February 28, 2018, 8:46 AM)
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U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced the Granting Release and Compassion Effectively (GRACE) Act, legislation that improves the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) approval process for compassionate prison release.

Authorized under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which also eliminated parole for federal prisoners, compassionate release gives people incarcerated in federal prisons an opportunity to appeal for early release for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, including advanced age and terminal illness.

“Too many people who are eligible for compassionate release die in prison because the decision takes so long,” said Sen. Schatz. “And many others wait for months just to get a response. Clearly, the system is broken. Our bill will create clear guidelines in the approval process so that we have more accountability in the system and the sick and elderly who qualify for compassionate release get it.”

“Congress first authorized the creation of a compassionate release program more than 30 years ago when it passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984,” said Sen. Lee. “Unfortunately, the system created to implement this statute has proved to be burdensome and underutilized. We need to streamline the application process for those sick and elderly who are eligible for compassionate release to receive it.”

“The way we treat terminally ill and elderly inmates speaks volumes about reforms needed in our justice system,” said Sen. Leahy. “For too long, elderly inmates with serious medical conditions—who no longer pose any threat to public safety—have faced unacceptable delays in petitioning for their compassionate release. Some have tragically died waiting. This is one of the few tools the Bureau of Prisons has at its disposal to safely reduce the federal inmate population, but it inexplicably fails to use it. This bill would reduce hurdles faced by ailing inmates and restore key humanitarian principles that should undergird our system of justice. The GRACE Act is one of many common sense approaches needed to reform our criminal justice system and I am a proud cosponsor.”

Since 2014, 81 people have died while their requests were under review. BOP takes an average of 141 days to approve compassionate release applications and nearly 200 days for denials. In a 2013 report, the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed BOP’s use of compassionate release and found that BOP did not have clear standards or a formal timeline standard when making its compassionate release decisions.

The GRACE Act would improve BOP’s approval process for compassionate release petitions by:

  • Allowing an individual to petition to a federal court if they fully exhaust all administrative rights to appeal, or if BOP fails to bring a motion within 30 days;
  • Setting up an expedited process for terminal illness cases;
  • Allowing prisoners’ attorneys or families to file on their behalf;
  • Requiring BOP to include compassionate release in their staff training and prison handbooks; and
  • Creating a reporting requirement for BOP.
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People released under compassionate release have a 3.5% recidivism rate, the lowest rate among all those formerly incarcerated. Additionally, incarcerated individuals 50 years and older have a 15% re-arrest rate, compared to a 41% re-arrest rate for the general federal prison population.

Federal prisons house an increasingly large number of aging individuals who often have serious medical conditions, making medical care one of the biggest expenses of the federal prison system. The elderly are now the fastest growing population in federal prisons and are expected to represent 28% of the total population by 2019. Incarceration costs for the elderly and terminally ill in prisons are substantially greater than for the general population.

The GRACE Act has been endorsed by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Human Rights Watch, and Drug Policy Alliance.

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