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Sentencing Commission considers what would qualify inmates for compassionate release

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Washington today, there is a big debate about when people in federal prison should be able to ask for early release. And the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering what counts as an extraordinary circumstance under the compassionate release program. Advocates want those who have been physically or sexually abused by prison workers to have a way out. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves leads the Sentencing Commission. He opened the meeting with this message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLTON REEVES: It does not matter if you sit in the halls of Congress or the desk of a prison library. When you speak to the commission, you will be heard.

JOHNSON: Four years ago, in a law called the First Step Act, Congress gave prisoners the option of asking a judge for early release if they demonstrated extraordinary or compelling reasons like terminal illness or old age. During the height of the COVID pandemic, 2,000 prisoners a month petitioned the courts for compassionate release, but only a small fraction succeeded. Now the question for the Sentencing Commission is what counts as extraordinary. Robert Parker is an official at the U.S. Justice Department.

ROBERT PARKER: As the pandemic showed, we often can't predict what extraordinary and compelling circumstances may arise in the future.

JOHNSON: Parker says the DOJ supports early release in cases of severe illness or when prisoners have no one else to care for their children. But he adopted a more nuanced view about claims of abuse by prison workers.

PARKER: We agree that compassionate release should be available for certain victims of physical or sexual abuse in prison as long as that misconduct has been independently established so that compassionate release hearings do not become mini trials before an investigation is complete.

KELLY BARRETT: Yes, we would disagree with that.

JOHNSON: Kelly Barrett's an assistant federal public defender in Connecticut.

BARRETT: One of the driving forces behind the First Step Act was to take the administrative delay out of the hands of the Bureau of Prisons, which was extremely slow to act for many, many years.

JOHNSON: Waiting for an abusive prison officer to be fired or prosecuted could take years, she says. Other defense attorneys and advocates are pressing the sentencing panel to take an even wider view. Defense lawyer Natasha Sen.

NATASHA SEN: While the perpetrators of these assaults may be different, the impact on an institutionalized individual can be no less traumatizing or deserving of relief.

JOHNSON: Kathy Lester is the police chief in Sacramento, Calif. She says many of the proposals under review are too broad.

KATHY LESTER: Instead of granting compassionate release to someone who's been adjudicated guilty based on the evidence by a jury of their peers because they were a victim of sexual or physical abuse, the focus should be on preventing these actions from occurring in the first place.

JOHNSON: Lester says there's a law already on the books to eliminate prison rape, and if it's enforced, there's no need to expand the reasons for compassionate release. Kellie Surdis says her brother was carjacked, kidnapped and shot by a group of men more than 20 years ago.

KELLIE SURDIS: I have now been through three compassionate release motions in the last several years, and going through this process for the families of victims of violent crimes just one single time is too much.

JOHNSON: She says the panel should consider victim families and show them compassion. The Sentencing Commission says it will accept public comments on its proposals until March 14. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOWBUDDYFAMOUS SONG, "PURGATORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.