Federal judges granted "compassionate release" to inmates in nearly 26 percent of 7,014 requests in fiscal year 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission says in a new report. The number granted relief increased more than twelvefold compared to 2019, the year after passage of the First Step Act, which allowed prisoners to ask judges for release. Courts cited health risks associated with COVID-19 as one reason for the increased number of inmates whose sentences were reduced.
Between the First Step Act's enactment in late 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission lost its quorum because of the failure to appoint new members, making it unable to amend its compassionate release policy, said commission chairman Judge Charles Breyer. The absence of this guidance has resulted in a lack of uniformity in how compassionate release motions are considered and applied across the country,” he said. Judges in regions of the U.S. varied widely in their granting of compassionate release requests, ranging from 47.5 percent in the Boston-based First Circuit to a low of 13.7 percent in the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit. “This report underscores why it is crucial for the Commission to regain a quorum to again have the ability to address important policy issues in the criminal justice system, such as compassionate release,” Breyer said.