Mary Trotter

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Congress first developed compassionate release in 1984, granting federal courts the authority to reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. Compassionate release allows the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and inmates to apply for immediate early release on grounds of “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing.” Questions remain about how the BOP and the courts grant compassionate release and whether the courts apply the compassionate release guidelines consistently. The uncertainty is due to the lack of clarity from the USSC to define “extraordinary or compelling circumstances,” and this uncertainty results in inconsistency by courts and the BOP when considering release motions. Section II of this note examines the historical background behind compassionate release, and the process of applying for compassionate release before Congress passed the First Step Act. Section II also explains the First Step Act and the application process for compassionate release. Section III examines how a defendant’s race and medical records, the geographic location of their prison, the defendant’s warden and prison staff, and inmate’s lack of access to counsel can all affect their chances of the court or the BOP granting their compassionate release claim. Finally, Section IV explains why the USSC should redefine and expand the definitions of “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” and how this will lead to more consistent and fair results. Section IV also explains that the USSC should leave some discretion to the courts for circumstances not clearly defined in the rules. Lastly, Section IV explains how wardens are not the right persons to be first in line to carry out these motions, and why a neutral third party within the BOP should begin the process.