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Compassionate release, once seldom used, offers some federal inmates hope

Damiene Lewis was at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, watching his nephew play outside with the sound of kids playing in the distance — a stark juxtaposition to where the 41-year-old was just months before; a federal prison in Texas, serving a 60-month sentence on gun and drug charges.

The same goes for Quentin Burt, a 51-year-old who walked out of federal prison a free man in July after serving 30 years for drug offenses he committed when he was 20. After decades apart, he is now home with his wife in Southfield, Michigan, enjoying the things he missed the most: her cooking (especially vegetables) and sleeping in a bed of his own.

This year, both men benefited from compassionate release, a once seldom used remedy that allows inmates to receive a reduction in their sentence. The process, which is only used in extraordinary circumstances, has seen an uptick during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both men are at increased risk of serious illness if they contract the virus. Lewis suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that has him consistently connected to an oxygen tank, while Burt lives with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and moderate kidney disease. 

After exhausting all requests with the Bureau of Prisons, both men turned to the courts for relief with the help of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which assisted them with their petitions. 

Burt filed his petition in June and was released less than a month later. A judge determined Burt served a "substantial portion" of his sentence for a non-violent offense, maintained good behavior and did not pose a danger to the community.

"I honestly didn't have a lot of hope. I said, 'Well, what's it going to hurt?'" his wife, Pam, told CBS News. "Within a week or two, a lawyer screener had called me, got some information and then they assigned a lawyer to Quentin's case. So, it really was a very quick turnaround." 

Quentin and Pam Burt
Pam and Quentin Burt Handout

Petitions for compassionate release were rarely approved prior to the passing of the First Step Act in December 2018, which created a procedural change, making it easier for offenders and their families to bring their request to the court. 

There were 145 offenders released in 2019 — about five times more than the year before, when 24 people were granted release, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. On average, the sentences were reduced by 84 months last year, compared to 68 months the year before. 

Two-thirds of those who successfully obtained release did so by filing requests through the court, rather than going through the Bureau of Prisons, the report found.

The bureau, in a statement, said it has no direct authority to reduce an inmate's sentence, but rather, a director determines if an inmate is eligible and submits a request to the prosecuting U.S. Attorney's Office to file a motion on behalf of the director. 

"Inmates who are found to be ineligible under agency criteria, or who are determined to be inappropriate for agency approval of a reduction in (a) sentence may file a motion themselves directly to the sentencing court per the First Step Act," the statement said.

So far, nearly 1,600 cases have been approved, the bureau said, meaning that in the year of the pandemic, the numbers of those being released have increased tenfold since the year before. 

The virus has killed 120 federal inmates, the bureau said. Saferia Johnson, a 36-year-old with pre-existing health conditions, died from the virus in August after her petitions for release were reportedly denied by a prison warden in Sumterville, Florida. 

Johnson was serving a 46-month sentence at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex for conspiracy to steal public money and for aggravated identity theft. The bureau declined to comment on her case. 

Compassionate release differs from home confinement, a program that Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to enforce in March, just as the pandemic began to root itself inside the federal prison system. Home confinement allows current inmates to serve out the remainder of their sentence from the comfort of their home while still remaining under correctional supervision. 

The Justice Department prioritized the elderly, those at high-risk, and non-violent offenders for home confinement. As time went on, the qualifying factors set by the bureau included those who had already served at least half of their sentence. 

Since Barr issued the directive, over 7,600 inmates have been placed into home confinement. Notable recipients include President Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen

However, in light of the pandemic, judges have been approving more petitions for compassionate release, and organizations like FAMM are helping spearhead the effort.

FAMM, in conjunction with other civil rights groups, created the "Compassionate Release Clearinghouse" in 2019, and has advocated for inmates who qualify for the sentence reduction under the First Step Act. 

"We didn't think it was smart to keep sick and elderly people in prison before COVID-19 hit – and it seemed downright immoral to trap them there once it did," said Kevin Ring, the organization's president. 

"We don't usually do direct services, but this was a humanitarian emergency. We are grateful to the hundreds of federal defenders and volunteer attorneys – both in and outside of the Clearinghouse – who helped families get their loved ones out of harm's way."

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