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Critics Say Federal Limitation of Compassionate Release is Cruel

Federal prosecutors have been seeking to limit defendants' rights to win compassionate release from prison in plea negotiations, a practice advocates say undermines the intent of Congress and produces cruel outcomes, NPR reports. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Tuesday to prohibit U.S. Attorneys from including the "pernicious" language in plea agreements. The groups said at least six jurisdictions around the nation are using the provisions, either barring defendants from filing motions for early release because of extraordinary medical or family conditions or limiting them to only one such request and barring appeals. Compassionate release is designed to give prisoners facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances a way to seek early release.

The Bureau of Prisons rarely approved such requests, so in 2018 Congress gave prisoners the ability to petition a federal court for freedom, under the First Step Act. More than 4,000 people have used that provision to win release. "I am sure responding to lots of compassionate release motions can be a nuisance for prosecutors, but trust me, that's nothing compared to battling a deadly disease in prison during a global pandemic," said FAMM's Kevin Ring. More than 90 percent of federal prosecutions end in guilty pleas, so the language in plea agreements carries enormous impact. The advocates said the situation is even more fraught legally because the Sentencing Commission, a federal body that sets advisory guidelines for punishment in federal cases, has been all but unable to operate. There are six vacancies on the panel.


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