What Exactly is a Compassionate Release and Who Qualifies?


I am often asked by those who were recently sentenced or getting ready to surrender to federal prison about their tying to secure a compassionate release. “Compassionate release” is a term used to describe the early release of an inmate from a federal prison due to extraordinary or compelling circumstances that couldn’t reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing.

While the specifics can vary from person to person, there are common criteria for eligibility:

Common Criteria for Eligibility

  1. Medical Conditions: An inmate may be considered for compassionate release if they have a terminal (fatal) illness or are suffering from a severe medical condition that substantially diminishes their ability to provide self-care within the environment of a correctional facility, or that a correctional facility cannot reasonably attend to without endangering the inmates life.
  2. Age: Elderly inmates who have served a significant portion of their sentence may be considered for compassionate release, particularly if they are suffering from age-related infirmities.
  3. Family Circumstances: In exceptional cases, an inmate might be eligible for compassionate release due to the death or incapacitation of the family member primarily responsible for the care of the inmate’s minor children.
  4. Other Extraordinary and Compelling Reasons: This catch-all category gives the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) discretion to release inmates for other reasons that couldn’t reasonably have been anticipated at the time of sentencing and that strongly justify a reduction of the term of imprisonment.

Process for Compassionate Release

  1. Initial Request: The inmate typically initiates the process by submitting a request to the warden of their institution. They must provide documentation supporting their request.
  2. Warden’s Review: The warden reviews the request and makes a recommendation, which is forwarded to the BOP’s Central Office.
  3. Central Office Review: The Central Office evaluates the recommendation and the evidence provided. If they approve the request, they will file a motion with the sentencing court asking for the sentence to be reduced.
  4. Court Decision: Ultimately, the decision to grant – or deny – compassionate release rests with the federal judge who presided over the original sentencing. The judge will consider the motion, the original offense, and other relevant factors in making their decision.
  5. Legal Representation: Due to the complexity of the law and the high stakes involved, legal representation is often essential in navigating this process.

Additional Points to Consider

  • First Step Act of 2018: This legislation made it easier for inmates to request compassionate release and appeal denials of their requests directly to a court, thereby bypassing the BOP’s administrative process if it takes too long.
  • Jurisdictional Differences: How compassionate release is handled can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction, the judge, and the specific circumstances of the case.
  • No Guarantee: Even if an inmate meets the criteria for compassionate release, there’s no guarantee that the request will be approved.

If you or someone you know is considering applying for compassionate release, consult with a legal professional or federal prison consultant who is experienced in this area. They can provide a thorough understanding of your options, the process, and legal implications.


Sam Mangel




Member: American Bar Association