The U.S. Sentencing Commission has approved guidelines that will expand federal inmates' ability to qualify for compassionate release from prison, Reuters reports. The policy, approved in a vote of 4-3, was part of a broader package of amendments, part of the most sweeping reforms the commission has approved in more than four years. The commission approves sentencing guidelines for federal judges. Chairman Judge Carlton Reeves said the panel had received thousands of public comments on its slate of reforms. The 2018 First Step Act expanded compassionate release criteria for sick and elderly federal inmates. Requests for compassionate release surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 7,014 motions filed in fiscal year 2020.Nnew compassionate release guidelines approved on Wednesday expanded the criteria for what can qualify as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to grant compassionate release.
An inmate could now be eligible for compassionate release is if he or she becomes the victim of sexual assault by a corrections officer. Kevin Ring of the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM called the changes "a big step in the right direction." Three commission members opposed the final policy, saying they disagreed with a provision that could allow judges to grant compassionate release to inmates if changes to federal sentencing laws renders their prison term inequitable. The policy "makes a systemic, structural change without congressional authorization," said commission member Candice Wong. The commission delayed a vote on a reform to limit federal judges from imposing longer sentences on defendants based on alleged crimes even if a unanimous jury has acquitted the defendant of those same allegations in a split verdict. Michael Heiskell, President-Elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “Permitting people to be sentenced based on conduct for which a jury has acquitted them is fundamentally unfair."