When Congress passed criminal justice reforms in the form of the First Step Act (Pub. L. 115-391) in 2018, no one could have foreseen its effect on federal prisoners in the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Before the First Step Act passed, the Bureau of Prisons (typically the warden of a federal prison) could bring a motion to reduce a term of federal imprisonment for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). The court reviewing such a motion must consider the relevant Sentencing Commission policy statement and the traditional factors considered at sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). In the pre-COVID era, this meant the statute was both rarely used and limited to situations in which elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners were both not a danger to the community and simply physically unable to function in a prison environment.
In 2018, the First Step Act amended the statute to allow convicted defendants themselves to bring a motion for release (often called a “motion for compassionate release”). Prior to the pandemic, courts continued to construe “extraordinary and compelling reasons” narrowly, tending to release prisoners only when nonviolent offenders had terminal illnesses or were unable to receive adequate medical care from their custodians. See, e.g. United States v. Beck, 425 F.Supp.3d 573, 580-82 (M.D.N.C. 2019) (releasing inmate with metastatic breast cancer where BOP medical staff delayed treatment).
However, with the arrival of coronavirus in federal prisons, the “extraordinary and compelling reasons” hook in the statute took on new meaning. Prisons, particularly low- and medium-security prisons where prisoners are housed in close contact with each other, are vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. Institutions like FCI Terminal Island, FMC Fort Worth and FCC Lompoc have suffered outbreaks infecting well over half of their populations. Combined with the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions in federal prisoners, prisoners have argued the pandemic is an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to release them early.
District courts have largely agreed. While courts regularly deny motions for compassionate release brought on the basis of a generalized fear of coronavirus standing alone, courts have granted motions where certain circumstances are met. Courts have granted motions where the defendant has a pre-existing medical condition or conditions creating a risk of serious harm or death if they were to contract the virus, the correctional institutions in which they are held have documented cases of coronavirus or conditions which would facilitate its spread, consideration of sentencing factors weighs in favor of release, and there is a suitable release plan in place.
The effect is reduction of a sentence of imprisonment to a sentence of home confinement or even supervised release. Successful defendants have had years of imprisonment shaved from their federal sentences on this basis. No vulnerable inmate should risk a sentence of imprisonment turning into a death sentence. If you or a loved one are incarcerated in a federal prison where the sentencing court is a California district court and fear the effects of coronavirus in prison, contact Janssen Malloy LLP for a consultation.