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Requests for compassionate release filed by federal prisoners swelled during the pandemic, a study finds.


The number of requests for compassionate release filed by federal prisoners skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission released on Thursday, with risks associated with contracting Covid-19 a critical factor.

The study analyzed how compassionate release was influenced by the pandemic and the criminal justice legislation signed into law in 2018.

Compassionate release allows inmates to be considered for early release from incarceration if they meet certain criteria that constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” such as terminal illness or age. In the decades after compassionate release was introduced in the 1980s, it was used only sparingly.

One reason for the swell of requests stems from the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill signed by President Donald J. Trump in December 2018 that, among other things, allows inmates to file motions directly in federal court after exhausting certain administrative requirements. Previously, only the director of the bureau of prisons could file compassionate release motions on behalf of prisoners.

But it was the pandemic that precipitated the high volume of requests. The study found that between March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and April 2020, the number of inmates for whom courts decided a compassionate release motion jumped nearly 900 percent. The number of requests continued to rise until reaching a peak in July 2020, with 403 out of 1,530 requests granted.

Overall, the study, which covered the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2019, and ending on Sept. 30, 2020, found that the risk of contracting Covid was listed as at least one reason in 71.5 percent of cases granted relief and as the only reason in 59.6 percent of requests granted, with courts pointing to an inmate’s heightened risk of contracting or experiencing serious illness from Covid.

While the pandemic raged around the country in the spring of 2020, its destructive power was particularly severe among the incarcerated. Data shows that inmates were infected at rates several times higher than those of their surrounding communities, and that Covid killed prisoners at higher rates than the general population.

Yet Covid also played a role in the number of people refused compassionate release. According to the study, in 62 percent of the 5,209 requests denied during the fiscal year 2020, at least one of the reasons cited by the courts was an inmate’s failure to demonstrate a sufficient risk of contracting Covid.

The report also found that decisions varied across the country, ranging from 47.5 percent of requests granted in the First Circuit, which includes several states in New England and Puerto Rico, to a low of 13.7 percent in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

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