These are unprecedented and frightening times. So far, COVID-19 has infected 4.5 million Americans and killed more than 150,000 of them. Businesses (large and small), schools, bars/restaurants, movie theaters, and museums are closed indefinitely. Courts are only now taking baby-steps to re-open. And, the BOP has reported thousands of COVID-19 infections and hundreds of inmate deaths. Indeed, any prison facility could become a deadly “hot spot” within a matter of days or weeks.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, courts nationwide have stepped up their consideration of motions for compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). As Chief Judge Colleen McMahon of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York put it in United States v. Resnick, Case No. 12-CR-52 (CM), 2020 WL 1651508, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. April 2, 2020), “releasing a prisoner who is for all practical purposes deserving of compassionate release during normal times is all but mandated in the age of COVID-19.”
Our client, Robert Panton, was recently released from federal prison after serving 30 years behind bars. Honorable Loretta A. Judge Preska of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York noted several reasons for his release from what was supposed to be a life without parole sentence.
But compassionate release was not always what it is today. Before Congress amended 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in December 2018 through passage of the First Step Act, only the Director of the BOP – not a defendant, a prosecutor or even a judge – was authorized to initiate a compassionate release proceeding. Today, by contrast, defendants themselves may file their own compassionate release motions after the earlier of the following two events: (1) rejection by the warden of the facility in which a defendant is being held of a request for compassionate release – that is, exhaustion of a defendant’s “administrative remedies”; or (2) the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of that request by the warden of such facility.
Also, before passage of the First Step Act, the “extraordinary and compelling” reasons upon which a compassionate release motion could be based were limited to medical condition, age, and family circumstances. Today, by contrast, no limits exist as to the “extraordinary and compelling” reasons that might warrant compassionate release. Courts may even consider a defendant’s post-conviction rehabilitation, though compassionate release cannot be based on rehabilitation alone.
In a word, Congress passed the First Step Act in part to expand the use of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in the reduction of sentences that no longer serve the penological objectives of the federal criminal justice system. Thus, today, federal judges have the power to order sentence reductions and, in doing so, are authorized to reduce prison terms (even to time served) on the full array of grounds reasonably encompassed by the phrase “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. Put differently, compassionate release is now available to any defendant whose conditions have changed such that a fair-minded person could conclude that “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for a sentence reduction exist.
What does all of this mean for the almost 160,000 men and women serving time in the BOP’s 122 facilities? Each and every one of them now has the opportunity to petition a court for compassionate release. And that is why compassionate release is essentially the “new” direct appeal. Virtually all defendants who are convicted of federal crimes can and do appeal their convictions and sentences. It is a legal challenge that defendants have as a matter of right. Compassionate release today is similar. Any defendant can file, and should consider filing, a compassionate release motion. In other words, all defendants who can do so should do so. After all, there is only upside – in the form of a reduced sentence – in pursuing compassionate release.
Compassionate release is now possible for thousands of inmates. However, the process is complex and requires legal knowledge to prove that there are “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. Protass Law PLLC has the experience necessary to show a federal judge that your loved one should be released. Call an experienced New York criminal defense attorney today at (212) 455-0335.