Federal Compassionate Release In Time Of Covid 19
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in the use of compassionate release in the federal prison system. Compassionate release allows courts to reduce the sentences of incarcerated people for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” This article will examine how the First Step Act of 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted compassionate release, the reasons courts grant or deny relief, and the implications going forward.
Background on Compassionate Release
Compassionate release is a process by which incarcerated people can get their sentences reduced by a federal judge. The compassionate release statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), allows courts to reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”
Compassionate release has existed for decades, but was rarely used before 2018. Back then, only the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could file motions for compassionate release in court. The First Step Act changed the law to allow prisoners themselves to file compassionate release motions after exhausting administrative remedies within BOP. This crucial change enabled a huge increase in the use of compassionate release.
Impact of the First Step Act
The First Step Act has led to many more incarcerated people filing motions and being granted compassionate release:
- In the year before the First Step Act, only 34 motions were filed and 6 were granted.
- In 2019, the first year under the new law, 145 motions were granted.
- In 2020, 1805 motions were granted – a 12x increase!
By allowing prisoners to directly petition courts, the First Step Act made compassionate release accessible to far more people. Over 95% of people granted release in 2020 filed their own motions.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Compassionate Release
The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the use of compassionate release. While the First Step Act increased access, COVID-19 led to a huge spike in grants of relief:
- 95% of compassionate release grants in 2020 happened after COVID-19 hit in March.
- Grants peaked in July 2020 at 403, compared to just 10 in February.
Courts cited COVID-19 risks as a reason for release in over 70% of grants in 2020. Many people got out early because COVID posed grave health risks if they stayed incarcerated.
Reasons for Granting Compassionate Release
Courts cited a variety of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for granting compassionate release in 2020:
- 71.5% – COVID-19 health risks
- 16.5% – Medical issues
- 3.2% – Sentence was too long
- 2.8% – Family circumstances like death of a caregiver
- 1.7% – Age of the prisoner
Though not in the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement, a small number of courts cited sentence length as a justification for release. There is disagreement on whether this is a legally valid reason under the statute.
Average Sentence Reduction
Among those granted compassionate release in 2020:
- The average sentence reduction was 59 months
- The average percentage of sentence reduced was 42.6%
Those granted release for COVID-19 got slightly shorter reductions (57 months) than those granted it for other medical reasons (65 months) .
Geographic and Demographic Disparities
The likelihood of being granted compassionate release depended heavily on geography and demographics in 2020:
- 47.5% grant rate in the First Circuit Court of Appeals (New England), compared to just 13.7% in the Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi) 
- 61.5% grant rate for prisoners aged 75+, but under 20% for those under 45
This data indicates major disparities in how compassionate release is applied.
Exhausting Administrative Remedies
Courts disagreed on whether prisoners had to exhaust all administrative remedies within BOP before filing for compassionate release in court, especially during COVID-19. Most circuits enforced the exhaustion requirement, while some waived it during the pandemic.
Concerns with Implementation
While compassionate release usage surged, some concerns emerged about how the process works:
- No clear standards on what qualifies as “extraordinary and compelling reasons”
- Bureau of Prisons has been slow to identify eligible candidates
- Lack of legal representation for many prisoners applying
- Racial disparities in who applies and is approved
Advocates argue more reforms are needed for compassionate release to work effectively and equitably.
Compassionate release usage declined in 2021 after peaking during the first COVID wave in 2020. But the changes brought by the First Step Act are likely permanent. Thousands of federal prisoners will likely continue to get released early through compassionate release each year.
Key questions remain on how to improve and standardize the process. It will be important to address disparities in application and approval rates. Continued advocacy and litigation will shape how compassionate release evolves. But it is clear the First Step Act and COVID-19 pandemic have permanently changed the criminal justice landscape.