Congress created “compassionate release” as a way to free inmates such as the terminally ill when it becomes “inequitable” to keep them in prison any longer. Supporters view the program as a humanitarian and sensible way to reduce health costs for ailing, elderly inmates who pose little risk to public safety. Despite urging from lawmakers of both parties, advocacy groups and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ own watchdog, prison officials use it only sparingly, reports the New York Times and the Marshall Project. Officials deny or delay the vast majority of requests, including that of one of the oldest federal prisoners, who was 94.
From 2013 to 2017, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approved six percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody. The bureau’s denials often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens. Advocates for the program say BOP, which oversees 183,000 inmates, denies thousands of deserving applicants. Roughly half of those who died after applying were convicted of nonviolent fraud or drug crimes. “It makes sense to release prisoners who present very little danger to society. It’s the humane thing to do, and it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “The Bureau of Prisons has the theoretical authority to do this, but they basically do none of it.” Officials reject many prisoners’ applications on the grounds that they pose a risk to public safety or that their crime was too serious to justify early release. Schatz has introduced legislation — co-sponsored with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — that would let prisoners petition the courts directly if the bureau denies or delays their requests.