Courts Deny Inmates Seeking COVID-19 Compassionate Release
Many attorneys seeking release of their clients have turned to Section 3582(c)(1)(A) often called "compassionate release". However, most who have sought release or sentence reduction of their clients amid COVID-19 have been denied due to failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Section 3582(c)(1)(A) permits the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion for compassionate relief. However, prior to the Defendant bringing a motion for compassionate release in the District Court, the text of the act also seemingly requires a Defendant to "exhaust administrative rights to appeal" the Bureau of Prisons failure to bring a motion for relief.
While courts have been inflexible in their denial of compassionate release motions due to failure to exhaust administrative remedies, this approach ignores the merits of the First Step Act, particularly in the wake of an unprecedented epidemic where quick access to the courts is vital to achieving the congressional aim of the First Step Act. Quickly mobilizing the courts, in the absence of BOP action to stem the infection rate of COVID-19 in jails, seems to be a great use of compassionate release. And what better vehicle than judges uniquely equipped to evaluate the sentence of a federal inmate while weighing the potential harm to society.
The Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments is not a static concept. Jail conditions that are made worse by a virus ravaging its population requires us to re-evaluate sentencing decisions and the Compassionate Release program is our existing framework for such decisions. Indeed, it is one of the only jurisdictionally appropriate remedies available to the Courts and Defendants for seeking review of a sentence by the district court. Social distancing in prisons is impossible and the federal prison population is at an all time high. Defendants should continue to utilize compassionate release as an avenue for relief from COVID-19.
In Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, 2,011 inmates, about 80 percent of the prison's population have tested positive. 154 members of the 350 person staff tested positive. Our jails have become a ticking time bomb and the overtaxed prison healthcare system is ill equipped to handle the additional load. Congress, the Courts and BOP should find a vehicle to permit the use of the compassionate release program and access to the courts to effectively evaluate and release low risk inmates.