compassionate release was a lifeline for federal inmates during COVID but only some were thrown it

When COVID-19 began to surge in prisons around the country, many lawyers turned to compassionate release as a way to free at risk inmates. Here's a look into the process, your Friday long read

We go to CNN for this week's long read by Casey Tolan, read the whole article “​​Compassionate release became a life-or-death lottery for thousands of federal inmates during the pandemic.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.

The fight for early release

Estrada-Elias, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for a nonviolent marijuana trafficking crime, suffers from congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and chronic kidney disease, another doctor who reviewed his records wrote. His prison warden recommended last year that he be released, noting his spotless disciplinary record.

But the federal judge who sentenced Estrada-Elias a decade and a half ago was not convinced. Judge Danny Reeves denied Estrada-Elias' request for compassionate release in July, writing that the large volumes of marijuana the defendant sold reflected "a flagrant disrespect for the law that can only be reflected in an equally severe sentence."

Estrada-Elias isn't alone: Reeves has denied compassionate release motions from at least 90 inmates since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a CNN review of court records found. In Reeves' district, the Eastern District of Kentucky, judges granted about 6% of compassionate release motions in 2020 and the first half of 2021, according to data released by the US Sentencing Commission this week. In some judicial districts, the approval rate was even lower.


When Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018, Democrats and Republicans hailed it as a breakthrough for overturning excessive sentences.

Among other reforms -- such as easing mandatory minimum sentences and requiring inmates to be housed in prisons closer to their families -- the law allows any defendant to petition their judge for compassionate release if "extraordinary and compelling reasons" support a sentence reduction. Previously, only the government could make such a motion -- and did so very rarely.

When the pandemic hit and Covid-19 began to spread through the prison system, lawyers turned to compassionate release as a key method to help medically vulnerable inmates get out. As petitions piled up on court dockets, judges were largely left to puzzle out what "extraordinary and compelling" means -- a life-and-death decision for some inmates.

The law doesn't define that standard, but it directs judges to consider factors associated with sentencing law as well as guidelines published by the US Sentencing Commission. All but one of the seats on the commission are currently vacant, and it hasn't approved new compassionate release guidelines in years.

Bottom line

In addition to the health problems documented by his prison doctor, Estrada-Elias, who has spent most of the last year and a half in hospitals and other medical facilities, suffered from a coronavirus infection late last year. "Mr. Estrada-Elias' prognosis is poor," his prison warden wrote in his recommendation for release last year, referring to his broader illnesses. "He has been diagnosed with an incurable, progressive illness in which he will not recover."

Few inmates in the federal prison system are as old as the nonagenarian Estrada-Elias: Less than 3% of federal inmates are older than 65, according to statistics from the Bureau of Prisons. His case is extraordinary because of his health risks, and he hoped to "spend the remaining few months of his life with his family," his pro bono lawyer wrote in the petition.

But in denying the motion for release, Judge Reeves noted that Estrada-Elias was convicted of drug trafficking when he was in his mid-70s. "He suggests that his frailty would preclude him from re-offending, but he made similar suggestions prior to being sentenced," the judge wrote.

Pointing to the large quantities of marijuana Estrada-Elias pled guilty to trafficking, Reeves wrote that "it is hard to imagine that a defendant can commit a more serious non-violent offense," and concluded that a life sentence is "the only sentence that would be appropriate and that would protect the public."

Read the whole article here.

COVID-19 resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protection. Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook.

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