The U.S. Bureau of Prisons lacks clear standards on when to grant compassionate release to inmates with terminal illnesses and limited life expectancies, the Justice Department's inspector general said Wednesday.
In a study of 206 such requests from 2006 through 2011, the director of federal prisons approved 142 releases and denied 36, the investigator's office found. In 28 cases, the inmates died before a decision was made.
The prison bureau's compassionate release program "is poorly managed" and its implementation "has likely resulted in potentially eligible inmates not being considered for release," the office concluded.
On Wednesday, the bureau of prisons addressed one of the inspector general's concerns — a lack of clear standards.
The bureau announced that from now on, medical criteria for consideration of reduced sentences under the compassionate release program may include inmates diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease whose life expectancy is 18 months or less. Other medical criteria may include whether there's an incurable, progressive illness or a debilitating injury from which the inmate will not recover, or full disability that leaves an inmate capable of only limited self-care and confinement to a bed or chair for more than half of waking hours.
The IG's office found that prison staff members had varied and inconsistent understandings of the circumstances that warranted consideration for compassionate release. Once such requests are granted by the director of federal prisons, motions for compassionate release are filed with sentencing judges.
Prior to the issuance of new guidance by the bureau of prisons, only inmates with a life expectancy of six months or less had been eligible for consideration in some prisons. At some other institutions, the life expectancy for considering compassionate release had been 12 months or less.
Some federal prisons do not have standards for how quickly the review process should move. The inspector general found that the process for appealing a warden's or a regional director's denial of a request can take more than five months.
Prison regulations permit non-medical circumstances to be considered as a basis for compassionate release. But the IG found that prisons routinely reject such requests.
In response, the Bureau of Prisons said it has already started a process to consider the subject of non-medical compassionate release. It said it will provide training to staffers responsible for reviewing inmate requests.
The program "is both cruel and inefficient," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a watchdog group for sentencing issues. "The inspector general's report, describing a lack of standards and guidance that border on chaos, should be a wake-up call."