Compassionate release and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: New USSC report

A recent publication by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) describes trends in federal compassionate release decisions during fiscal year 2020. It includes detailed information about offenders who received compassionate release, the nature of relief received, and reasons behind court decisions to grant or deny compassionate release motions. The report focuses on federal compassionate release decisions that occurred during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and is not reflective of 2021 or 2022 trends. This report builds from previous USSC reports, including the First Step Act Year One Report and the Compassionate Release Data Report.

The new USSC report found that the number of federal  offenders granted compassionate release dramatically increased in 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic. In fiscal year 2020, courts granted sentence reductions to 1,805 of the 7,014 offenders (25.7%) seeking compassionate release.

According to authors, the substantial increase in compassionate release grants was in part facilitated by the First Step Act of 2018, which included many provisions related to sentencing reform. One of these provisions authorized offenders to file their own motions in federal court. This is evidenced by the fact that 96% of offenders who received sentence reductions had filed their own motions.

95% of compassionate release grants occurred during the second half of the fiscal year (as COVID-19 became more widespread). For 71.5% of people granted compassionate release, courts cited health risks associated with COVID-19 as part of their reasoning. In addition to COVID-19 health risks, other factors that impacted the likelihood that an offender would be granted release included the length of an offender’s original sentence and the length of time they had already served.

Offenders who were originally sentenced to 12 months or less were the most likely to be granted compassionate release (56.9%), followed by offenders who were originally sentenced to 20 years or more (29.9%), and offenders who were sentenced to terms ranging from 10-19 years (19.8%). Those who were granted relief had served about 50.5% of their sentence (an average of 80 months), while those who were denied relief had served about 39.0% of their sentence (an average of 57 months).

In contrast, race, criminal history category, and convicted offense had little impact on the likelihood that an offender would receive compassionate release. Rates varied by only 2.2 percentage points when comparing white and non-white offenders, by 5.3 percentage points across criminal history categories, and by 5.2 percentage points across offense types. However, rates did seem lower for people convicted of violent offenses as opposed to nonviolent offenses, though, the former only comprised a small percentage of people who had sought compassionate release.

Those who were granted compassionate release received large reductions in their sentences, with an average reduction of approximately 5 years (59 months), or approximately 42.6% of an offender’s sentence. Sentence reductions were somewhat smaller for offenders who were released solely based on the risk of contracting COVID-19, with an average reduction of about 4.5 years (54 months), or approximately 41.7% of an offender’s sentence.

The post Compassionate release and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: New USSC report appeared first on Crime & Consequences.