Both federal and state criminal laws often provide for certain release valves to be used in the event that it makes more sense from a values balancing standpoint to release a prisoner or mitigate his or her imprisonment terms than to keep that prisoner locked away. The criminal justice system seeks in part to balance the needs of public safety with the rights of prisoners. These release valves are employed when prisoners no longer pose any likely threat to public safety.
According to federal sentencing guidelines, prisoners may be freed from the remainder of their prison sentences on a “compassionate release” basis under extraordinary circumstances. For example, if a prisoner is diagnosed with a terminal illness and no longer poses any likely danger to society, that prisoner may petition for compassionate release. This program serves the interests of taxpayer dollars and balancing the important interests of prisoners with public safety.
Unfortunately, a recently released report authored by the independent inspector general at the Justice Department confirms that this release valve is being pulled far too infrequently by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The report also confirms that pulling this release valve more often would save valuable taxpayer dollars by reducing unnecessary overcrowding of prisoners who are only being sent home due to extraordinary circumstances.
Over the five year period of 2006 to 2011, just 142 inmates were granted compassionate release status. The independent inspector general urges the federal Bureau of Prisons to reconsider its position on compassionate release and to reform its approach for the benefit of ailing prisoners and taxpayers alike.
Source: New York Times, “More Releases of Ailing Prisoners Are Urged,” Charlie Savage, May 1, 2013