What is Compassionate Release?
Compassionate release is a process for reducing a federal prisoner’s sentence and, if the sentence is reduced to time-served, allowing the prisoner to be released early. Although this process is commonly referred to as “compassionate release,” you won’t find that term in the applicable law, which is 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(a) [link]. Instead, the law simply refers to compassionate release as a type sentence reduction.
How Do I Get Compassionate Release?
First, compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 only applies to federal prisoners, not to state prisoners. For state prisoners, you will need to consult state law.
Second, compassionate release must be ordered by the federal judge that sentenced you (or by whichever judge is currently presiding over the same court). There are two ways to ask the judge for compassionate release. One way is for the Bureau of Prisoners to file a motion on your behalf. But this is very uncommon, even in cases of terminal illness. The second way is for the federal prisoner to file a motion directly with the judge: this is a new procedure put into place by the First Step Act of 2018, a landmark criminal justice reform bill that has resulted in the release of thousands of federal prisoners.
A federal prisoner cannot simply file the motion for compassionate release, however; there are important steps to follow. First, you must make a request of the warden of your unit. This can be a simple request, such as on a cop-out, but it must specifically list every ground for compassionate release that you plan to raise in your motion to the judge. Leaving out any of the grounds for release from your request to the warden could cost you a lot of time and expense, because when you file your motion in court, the motion is then likely to be denied for failure to first make the same request of the warden. (In legalese, this requirement is called “exhausting your administrative remedies,” and you must do that prior to going to court.)
After sending the request to the warden, you must then wait until your request is denied, or until 30 days passes, whichever comes first, before filing your motion in court. If the judge agrees that you have “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for a sentence reduction, then the judge has the power to reduce your sentence, including a reduction all the way to time-served. A successful motion may include several attachments, such as reference letters, medical documentation, and evaluations from medical experts.