Two advocacy groups say that the federal Bureau of Prisons should give more prisoners early release if they are incapacitated or terminally ill, but victims rights groups say they hope victims won't be forgotten in the process.
NEW YORK — For humanitarian and economic reasons, the federal Bureau of Prisons should grant more early releases to incapacitated and terminally ill prisoners, two advocacy groups say in a report depicting current policies as sometimes "cruel as well as senseless."
The report, issued Friday by Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says the Bureau of Prisons oversees more than 218,000 inmates, yet has recommended an average of only two dozen compassionate releases a year since 1992.
Human Rights Watch senior adviser Jamie Fellner, a co-author of the report, said Congress in 1984 granted federal courts the authority to reduce sentences under "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances. However, the report says federal prisoners can't seek such a sentence reduction from the courts on their own; only the BOP has the authority to file a motion requesting judicial consideration of early release.
"Justice sometimes requires compassion, even for people who have broken the law," Fellner said. "But prison officials prevent judges from deciding when compassion requires a sentence reduction. This is unfair to the prisoners and costly to the country."
Responding by email, the BOP said it reviews each early-release request on a case-by-case basis and also takes into consideration information provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"It is the bureau's responsibility to consider public safety" when determining whether to pursue these motions, the BOP statement said.
Though the new report is generally critical of BOP policies, it cites some "promising signs" — including formation of a BOP working group to look at the compassionate release program. It said the BOP's new director, Charles Samuels, has expressed interest in reforming the program and noted that the number of release cases forwarded to the courts had risen slightly under his leadership, to 37 between Jan. 1 and Nov. 15 of this year.
The report urges Congress to change the existing law, which gives prisoners no right to challenge BOP decisions in court. It also says the BOP should bring compassionate release motions to court whenever a prisoner presents compelling arguments, regardless of whether prison officials believe early release is warranted.
The BOP's budget is more than $6 billion, and care of ailing and aging prisoners is a major factor in rising expenses. The report says one way to curb these costs would be increased use of compassionate release for prisoners posing minimal risk to public safety.
The report says the BOP does not keep an overall count of prisoners who seek compassionate release, but provided a breakdown for the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., which houses nearly 1,000 inmates with medical problems. During 2011, the report says, the warden made decisions on 147 requests for compassionate release and approved 12 of them.
Based in 2010 figures, the per capita cost of caring for a prisoner in a medical center such as Butner was $40,760, compared to the BOP's overall per capita cost of $25,627, the report said.
The BOP requires prisoners to be within 12 months of death or profoundly and irrevocably incapacitated to be eligible for compassionate release consideration. It generally does not make motions to the courts on non-medical grounds, though the report says this could be done — for example, for prisoners seeking early release to care for dying family members.
The report acknowledges that many Americans oppose early release, especially for offenders who inflicted serious harm on victims. But it argues that a prison sentence that initially seemed justified may become disproportionately severe due to changed circumstances, such as grave illness.
"Keeping a prisoner behind bars when it no longer meaningfully serves any legitimate purpose cannot be squared with human dignity and may be cruel as well as senseless," the report says.
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, offered this advice to the BOP: "We hope that, in fairness to victims, any compassionate release process provides notice to victims and the opportunity for them to be heard."
Many states have laws permitting early release for medical or other reasons, but Fellner said these provisions were "greatly underutilized" in most states.
The report cites several examples of inmates who unsuccessfully sought to have early-release requests considered by the courts.
Among them is a 73-year-old inmate at the Butner medical center who has served half of a 20-year federal sentence for sexually touching a child, taking lewd pictures and possessing child pornography. Because of a spinal condition, the inmate is now permanently paralyzed below his upper chest and will require skilled nursing care until he dies, according to the report.
The report says Butner's warden rejected his bid to be considered for early release, contending that he was still deemed a threat to society who deserved to stay imprisoned out of deference to his victim.