Published on: Friday, April 7, 2023

The U.S. Sentencing Commission approved new guidelines on Wednesday that will expand federal inmates' ability to qualify for compassionate release from prison (article available here).

The First Step Act expanded compassionate release criteria for sick and elderly federal inmates. Requests for compassionate release then surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 7,014 motions filed in fiscal year 2020. Those requests have not been granted on a consistent basis without the panel's guidance.

The new compassionate release guidelines approved on Wednesday expanded the criteria for what can qualify as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to grant compassionate release, and it will give judges more discretion to determine when a sentence reduction is warranted.

Before this week's amendment, grounds for judicial compassionate release essentially were limited to cases involving advanced age, severe or terminal illness, or the death of the caregiver for an inmate's minor child. Now, judges can also authorize release in cases involving:

  • "unusually long sentences" when the defendant has served 10 years and an intervening change in the law likely would have resulted in a shorter sentence had it been in place at the time of sentencing;
  • victims of sexual assault by corrections officers;
  • the death or incapacitation of care givers for any loved one or family member, not just minor children;
  • "any other circumstance or combination of circumstances that, when considered by themselves or together with any" of the listed reasons, could be construed as extraordinary and compelling.

This catch-all "other reasons" provision will provide judge's the discretion to fashion appropriate relief for extraordinary cases that do not fall neatly within the previously limited criteria.

The revised guideline will take effect in November 2023 absent Congressional action.