If you were ever an inmate, you would not have to read a report about correctional systems lack of compassion in releasing terminally ill inmates or the elderly inmates. In past articles, we have discussed the inadequate healthcare for elderly inmates and the substantial increase of seniors in prison. The following New York Times Editorial focused on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s so called “compassionate release program.”
The Justice Department’s inspector general last week issued a report on the appalling failure of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to do its duty in assisting in the release of terminally ill inmates and others in extreme situations. The 85-page report by the inspector general’s office criticized the bureau’s “compassionate release” program, which has been “poorly managed and implemented inconsistently, likely resulting in eligible inmates not being considered for release and in terminally ill inmates dying before their requests were decided.”
Details in the report painted an even harsher picture, one of government scorn for the program and, worse, for prisoners the bureau is required to treat humanely. The program has the potential to save money, and it poses scant risk to public safety, given the population eligible for this kind of early release. But the government has kept the use of the program to a shameful minimum.
Last November, a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums found that the percentage of prisoners released has shrunk from tiny to microscopic. From 1992 until November 2012, a period in which the federal prison population grew from around 80,000 to 200,000, the bureau released 492 prisoners through the program, an average of only two dozen or so a year. Virtually the only ground the Bureau of Prisons has accepted for release is terminal illness with up to a year of life expectancy, even though the United States Sentencing Commission has identified other grounds for release that meet the federal statute’s standards: impairment due to old age, a permanent physical or mental condition, and the incapacitation of a family member who provides the sole care for the prisoner’s minor children.
The Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons say they are revising their regulations about compassionate release. It is time for Congress to conduct a hearing that would put the department and the bureau on public record about what they are doing to properly fulfill their duty under the law and to hold them accountable.
Congress authorized the Bureau of Prisons to petition a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence for “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. The bureau is supposed to notify all prisoners of the compassionate release program and of their chance to apply, provide standards for eligibility, and lay out steps to ensure that prisons respond swiftly to release applications. The Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons have long failed to take these duties seriously, disgracefully refusing to carry out a humane and practical law.
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