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What Is Compassionate Release?

Compassionate release, as its name indicates, is a form of post-conviction relief based more on “compassionate” than “legal” grounds. Or, as those in the legal community might define it, it is an “equitable” rather than “legal” remedy. Essentially, the idea is we’re not challenging the validity of the conviction. Instead, a compassionate release motion says something like “we accept the punishment, we would just like the court to consider a lesser punishment due to our medical condition and our demonstrated rehabilitation while incarcerated.” 


The standard for prevailing on a compassionate release motion is twofold. First, an inmate must demonstrate “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for relief. If that bar is cleared, the inmate must then demonstrate that the sentencing factors weight in favor of early release


Historically, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for relief were limited to those who were terminally ill. After the onset of COVID, however, attorneys began advocating for inmates on the grounds that being in a federal prison facility was itself an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for relief. While that basis for a compassionate release motion is dwindling, there have since been other areas where courts have found that sentences present “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for relief. 


It should also be noted that by the tail end of the pandemic every federal circuit in the country EXCEPT for the 11th circuit had officially held that the Court has discretion to consider things outside of the Bureau of Prison’s policy statement as an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for relief. The Supreme Court decided to not resolve the 11th circuit’s different thinking on this issue in December of 2021. Practically what this means is that if you are in the 11th circuit seeking compassionate release, your attorney will be much more restricted in the arguments he or she can make in saying you have extraordinary and compelling reasons for relief. If you are not in the 11th circuit, your attorney has room to put forward any argument for something that appears to be an extraordinary and compelling reason for relief, and see if the Court will consider it.