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Judges Fail to Use First Step Act to Free Ill Prisoners

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

More than four years ago, then-President Trump signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill meant to help free people in federal prisons who are terminally ill or aging and who pose little or no threat to public safety. Supporters predicted the law would save taxpayers money and reverse decades of tough-on-crime policies that drove incarceration rates in the U.S. to among the highest in the world. But data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows judges rejected more than 80 percent of compassionate release requests filed from October 2019 through September 2022, NPR reports. Judges made rulings without guidance from the sentencing commission, an independent agency that develops sentencing policies for the courts. The commission was delayed for more than three years because Congress did not confirm Trump's nominees and President Joe Biden's appointees were not confirmed until last August. As a result, academic researchers, attorneys and advocates for prison reform said the law has been applied unevenly across the country.


Later this week, the sentencing commission is poised to hold an open meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the problem. It will review newly proposed guidelines that include, among other things, a provision that would give consideration to people housed in a correctional facility who are at risk from an infectious disease or public health emergency. The lag in compassionate release is particularly alarming because prisons are teeming with aging inmates who suffer from cancer, diabetes and other conditions, academic researchers said. A 2021 notice from the Federal Register estimates the average cost of care per individual is about $35,000 per year. The First Step Act brought fresh attention to compassionate release, which had rarely been used in the decades after it was authorized by Congress in the 1980s. The new law allowed people in prison to file motions for compassionate release directly with federal courts. Before, only the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons could petition the court on behalf of a sick prisoner, which rarely happened. This made federal lockups especially dangerous at the height of the pandemic, academic researchers and reform advocates said.

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