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Federal Compassionate Release: What Can be Considered?

In January 2016, Joel Alexander Wright was arrested at the San Diego for attempted enticement of a minor and other related charges.  Three months later, in April 2016, he entered a guilty plea to violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b).

In sentencing, Wright’s counsel recommended the statutory minimum 120 months’ imprisonment, while the U.S. Attorney recommended 168 months.  The U.S. District Court then sentenced him to 188 months’ imprisonment followed by lifetime supervised release. 

Wright was housed at the Federal Correctional Institution (“FCI”) in Danbury, Connecticut and was projected to be released in June 2029. 

In September 2020, after serving just over four years of the sentence filed a motion for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), pursuant to the First Step Act of 2018.  He requested a reduced sentence to time served, or in the alternative, modify his sentence to home confinement.  He argued that his medical condition made him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In his motion, which was denied by the U.S. District Court and then appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Wright failed to discuss why home confinement was appropriate and there was no suggestion of any conditions for home confinement to protect the public and prevent Wright from reoffending, or even why such conditions would amount to just punishment in this case. 

The Ninth Circuit began its analysis of the District Court’s ruling by explaining that the standard for review on such a motion would be abuse of discretion. See United States v. Aruda (9th Cir. 2021) 993 F.3d 797, at 799 (“A district court may abuse its discretion if it does not apply the correct law or if it rests its decision on a clearly erroneous finding of material fact.”); United States v. Dunn (9th Cir. 2013) 728 F.3d 1151, at 1159 (a district court ruling is an abuse of discretion if it reaches a conclusion that is “illogical, implausible, or without support in inferences that may be drawn from the facts in the record. . . Mere disagreement does not amount to an abuse of discretion.”).

The Ninth Circuit then explained how the First Step Act was to be applied and noted that the new law arose because, in part, by a 2013 study that the compassionate release process was marked by delays in management and that the Bureau of Prisons used this discretion so “sparingly” that “an average of only 24 prisoners were released each year by BOP motion.”  United States v. McCoy (4th Cir. 2020) 981 F.3d 271, 276; United States v. Brooker (2d Cir. 2020) 976 F.3d 228, 230-232 (observing that out of 208 prisoners approved for compassionate release, 13% died while awaiting a final decision by the BOP Director).

Accordingly, prisoners were authorized by the First Step Act to apply directly to the District Court judge after exhausting their administrative remedies within the Bureau of Prisons.  Specifically, a defendant may file a motion for compassionate release only if he or she has submitted a request to the warden of his or her facility, and either: (1) the warden has denied that request and the defendant has exhausted all rights to appeal within the Bureau of Prisons; or (2) thirty days have elapsed since the request was submitted.”  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

The District Court must then consider compassionate release on an individualized basis making three determinations.  First, the district court must determine whether “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant” a sentence reduction.  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  Second, the court must consider whether a reduction would be consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Third, the court must consider and weigh the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3583(a) to decide whether the requested sentence reduction is warranted “under the particular circumstances of the case.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Although a district court must conclude that a defendant satisfies all three predicates before granting a motion for compassionate release, it may deny compassionate release if defendant fails any of these grounds.

Here, the district court denied Wright’s motion by holding that Wright failed to demonstrate he was “not a danger to others or to the community.”  This finding was an abuse of discretion, the Ninth Circuit found, but it was a harmless error.  In United States v. Keller (9th Cir. 2021) 2 F.4th 1278, at 1284, the Ninth Circuit that a “district court that properly denied compassionate release need not evaluate every step” in the “sequential step-by-step analysis” required by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

We present this summary to exemplify how hard compassionate release remains to secure.

For more information about compassionate release from federal prison, please click on the following articles:
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