Explore how compassionate release can be crucial in the justice system. Learn about its importance, process, and profound impacts on inmates’ lives.

What Is Compassionate Release?


A compassionate release is one of the federal sentence reductions established by the U.S. Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. It is a legal procedure that grants inmates who can demonstrate extraordinary or compelling reasons an immediate early release from federal prison. Such reasons can be medical, non-medical, or age-related and should not have been foreseeable during sentencing. Section 3582(c)(1)(A) of the U.S. Code allows federal district courts to grant compassionate release.

Compassionate Release Eligibility


All prisoners in federal prisons can be eligible for compassionate release. However, their motion must be based on extraordinary and compelling reasons for sentence reduction to receive such release. The United States Sentencing Commission and the Board of Prisons (BOP) set the eligibility criteria for compassionate release and the guidelines for what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons. These include:

Terminal Medical Conditions

Terminally ill prisoners without a specific life expectancy prognosis are eligible for compassionate release. Prisoners diagnosed with incurable diseases with 18 months life expectancy are also eligible. 

Debilitated Medical Conditions

Prisoners who have suffered debilitating injuries are eligible for compassionate release. However, they must have no hope of recovery and require the care and assistance of others to be eligible.

Advanced Age Prisoners

Prisoners experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health due to age are eligible. Elderly prisoners must be at least 65 and have served at least 75 percent or ten years of their sentence to qualify.

Prisoners sentenced for crimes committed after November 1, 1987, who are 70 years old and have served 30 years of their sentence also qualify for compassionate release as “New Law” elderly inmates. 

Family Conditions

A prisoner can be eligible for compassionate release due to family circumstances. The incapacitation of a prisoner’s spouse or the caregiver of their minor child is grounds for compassionate release. However, the prisoner must be the only available family caregiver for the minor child or spouse to be eligible.

The 2023 amendments

On April 5, 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved amendments to its federal sentencing guidelines that expanded the eligibility criteria for compassionate release. Among the new qualifying criteria are sexual abuse by correctional officers and excessively long sentences.

Process of Compassionate Release


The compassionate release process goes as follows:

1. Prisoner’s Submission of Compassionate Release Request

A prisoner eligible for compassionate release can initiate the process by submitting a request to the warden. The request must outline the following details:

  • The alleged extraordinary and compelling circumstances,
  • The prisoner’s proposed house upon release, and
  • The prisoner’s proposed means of sustenance if the compassionate release request is granted.

When the warden approves the request, the warden sends it to the Regional Director. The Director then refers the request to the Bureau of Prisons Office of General Counsel.

2. Submission of Request to the Bureau of Prisons’ Director

The Counsel seeks the opinion of BOP’s Medical Director for requests based on medical reasons. For requests based on non-medical reasons, the Counsel refers the request to the e Correctional Programs Division.

The General Counsel then forwards the request to the Director of BOP for a final decision.

3. Request Denial or Approval by the Bureau of Prisons’ Director

Upon approval, the General Counsel will draft a compassionate release motion for the prisoner and forward it to the U.S. attorney to file it with the sentencing court.

Before the passage of the First Step Act in 2018, only the federal BOP could file a compassionate release motion. The First Step Act allows inmates to file a motion for compassionate release in a federal court if the BOP fails to file a motion on their behalf or fails to process their request within 30 days of receipt. However, inmates must exhaust all administrative rights to appeal to qualify.

Compassionate Release Limitations


Compassionate release is a sound system for sentence reduction, but it has limitations, including:

  • Time-Consuming Procedure: Securing compassionate release is time-consuming due to the many steps and approvals it has to go through. Some applicants die waiting for the review of their requests.
  • High Rates of Denial: Compassionate release has a high potential to reduce incarceration, but only a few applicants secure it. According to a Data Report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission Compassionate Release, 85% of compassionate release motions were denied by courts between October 2022 and March 2023. In Georgia, the denial rate for the same period is a staggering 95%.
  • Absence of Unified Eligibility Criteria: The eligibility criteria for compassionate release are not unified. Some states allow debilitated medical conditions as grounds for compassionate release, while others don’t. Moreover, the BOP and the sentencing commission have different qualification criteria.

Impacts of Compassionate Release

Compassionate release has a significant impact on both individuals and the criminal justice system as a whole. Here are some of the impacts of this program:

  • Reduction in prison population: Compassionate release helps reduce prison overcrowding by allowing eligible prisoners to be released early.
  • Cost-saving: With fewer prisoners, there is less strain on state budgets for prison maintenance, healthcare, and other expenses associated with incarceration.
  • Promotes humanitarianism: Compassionate release promotes compassion and mercy towards those who do not threaten society.
  • Reduces recidivism: Studies have shown that individuals who are released through compassionate release programs have lower rates of reoffending compared to those who serve their full sentences. This is because they can reintegrate into society and receive the necessary support.
  • Provides closure for families: Compassionate release can provide closure for families of prisoners who are suffering from debilitating health conditions, allowing them to spend quality time together before their loved one passes away. Overall, compassionate release programs have a positive impact not only on individuals and their families but also on the criminal justice system and society as a whole.

Strickland Webster, LLC Can Help You


Do you want to apply for compassionate release for yourself or a family member in Georgia? Our appeal lawyer in Atlanta, GA, can walk you through the process and help you with the filing. Schedule a free consultation with criminal defense lawyers at Strickland Webster, LLC today.



What Is the Difference Between Compassionate Release and Parole?

A parole is an offender’s release before the end of a sentence based on behavioral condition. However, compassionate release is based on an inmate’s medical or family conditions. The likelihood of a released inmate on compassionate grounds to commit crimes is low due to their debilitated state or terminal illness.


Can Compassionate Release Be Granted for Non-Medical Reasons?

A compassionate release grant is attainable for non-medical reasons. Prisoners can secure compassionate release due to age-related and family conditions.