Compassionate release programs could be a useful and humane means of reducing the prison population if states were to use them more, according to a report released Wednesday by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
“Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States” reviews the early-release programs available to prisoners struggling with extraordinary circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness, across the country, including the regulations and requirements for each state’s program.
The report finds that prisoners and their families face many barriers when applying for compassionate release. Prisoners are often unaware that such programs exist, and even when they do apply, many programs do not keep prisoners updated about the status of their applications. Unclear eligibility criteria can result in lengthy delays as a prisoner’s candidacy is evaluated.
Given the drawn-out application process in some places, a grant of compassionate release can sometimes come after a prisoner has already died.
Caring for aging prisoners and prisoners who are ill or suffering from a significant and limiting disability strains prisons’ already limited resources. FAMM’s report cites estimates that older prisoners cost between three to nine times more per prisoner to incarcerate than younger ones.
Compassionate release programs could provide a means of reducing the prison population and saving money as the costs of incarceration rise, the report says.
Older prisoners are also the least likely to be rearrested once released. A Department of Justice review of federal prisoners who received compassionate release found their recidivism rate to be 3.1 percent, a tiny number when compared with recidivism of full-term prisoners.
But FAMM’s analysis finds that although every state except Iowa has some form of compassionate release, these programs are often underutilized.
In Kansas, for example, just seven individuals received compassionate release between 2009 and 2016. In New Jersey, medical parole has been granted no more than two times a year since 2010.
The report recommends that all states enact or amend compassionate release policies to make them more effective; ensure that eligibility criteria are fair; establish clear deadlines to keep applications in progress; publicize compassionate release programs; provide assistance with post-release planning; and require data collection and reporting to gauge programs’ success.
FAMM also released a video, “Compassionate Release: Not a Right of Left Issue,” that features a diverse set of advocates for expanding the use of compassionate release, including prosecutors such as Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“It’s cruel and wasteful to continue to incarcerate people who no longer pose a threat to our society,” said Mary Price, the report’s author and general counsel at FAMM, in a press release.
“Over the years, most states have attempted to create some form of an early release mechanism for those in need. However, all could be improved, and it is our hope that this will serve as a guide for policymakers nationwide.”
Elena Schwartz is a TCR News Intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.