Federal Compassionate Release for Elderly and Terminally Ill Inmates - Changes to the Federal Law

The recent criminal justice reform bill, the “First Step Act of 2018,” as passed by congress and signed into law by President Trump on December 21, 2018, has received much fanfare for its changes to mandatory minimum sentences and the expansion of the safety value in drug cases, but a little-noticed provision of the act is having a huge impact on “elderly” and terminally ill inmates.

Buried in the “miscellaneous” section of the Act is the re-authorization of the Federal Prisoner Reentry Initiative, the modification of the term “elderly offender,” and the inclusion of the terminally ill offender into the program. Basically, the Reentry Initiative is a program of compassionate release for those inmates whose continued confinement would serve an undue hardship on the inmate. The elderly and the terminally ill inmates are categorically worse off in a prison environment than able body inmates. What the Initiative seeks to do is allow for these inmates to serve out the rest of their sentence either in home confinement or in an appropriate medical facility or hospice for the terminally ill.


I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but elderly isn’t as old as you might think. This is especially true in the Federal prison system where over 60 years of age is classified as elderly. The modification to the Reentry Initiative lowers the age from 65 to 60 for those eligible inmates. This is a huge difference and will benefit many inmates and can also be used in sentencing hearings to persuade judges to not impose prison as a sentence in older offenders.


Under the Initiative, a terminally ill offender is defined as one who has been determined by a medical doctor, approved by the Bureau of Prisons, to be in need of care at a nursing home, intermediate care facility, or assisted living facility as well as persons diagnosed with a terminal illness.


To qualify for the Reentry Initiative, the inmate must not be currently serving or have served a sentence involving the use of violence, a sexual offense, a crime involving espionage or an offense involving terrorism. Furthermore, the inmate must have served the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of the term of imprisonment to which the offender was sentenced.


If the inmate is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the Initiative now requires the Bureau of Prisons, within 72 hours, to notify the defendant’s attorney, partner, and family members of the inmate’s condition and further requires the Bureau, within 7 days, to provide them an opportunity to visit the inmate.


If the Bureau doesn’t initiate proceedings on its own initiative, the inmate’s attorney will file a request for a “sentence reduction.” Basically, the attorney will detail why the inmate deserves and is qualified for early release and the Bureau of Prisons must “process” the request within fourteen days. No word if “process” has the same meaning as “release.” With time, we shall see how fast an inmate can be granted release and processed out.


If you or someone you know is a candidate for this early release, just call us and we can start the process of pulling the necessary records to complete the application for compassionate release for them. Better yet, this issue should be raised initially in the sentencing hearing and any subsequent hearings to reduce the initial imposition of sentence. Federal Court is moving away from some of the draconian lengthy sentencing schemes put in place over the last 20 years and is moving to a more rational approach to punishment. We are here to help however we can.