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'Compassionate release' program isn't working, DOJ IG reports

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An early release program for federal prisons is so poorly managed that many eligible inmates aren't considered and some terminally ill prisoners die before their release is approved, according to a report by the Inspector General for the Department of Justice released today.

The compassionate release program was created to reduce overcrowding and high prison costs by granting early release to inmates with extraordinary circumstances.

But because the Federal Bureau of Prisons lacks consistent guidelines for the program, few requests have been approved, and overcrowded prisons spend as much as $3.2 million on health care for inmates who could be released.

BOP only releases an average of 24 prisoners each year, according to the DOJ IG. At some prisons, only inmates with 6 months or less to live were considered eligible, while at others, inmates with a life expectancy of one year or less were considered.

The program is supposed to allow for both medical and non-medial releases, but during the DOJ IG's 6-year review process from 2006 to 2011, not a single non-medical request was approved.

The guidelines don't define either "compassionate release" or what constitutes "extraordinary and compelling" reasons for release. With prison wardens left to interpret the rules themselves, prisoners who could be eligible aren't even considered, the report said.

The program also lacks timeline requirements, and requests from prisoners with months to live aren't always prioritized. Even at prisons with an expedited process for terminally ill prisoners' applications, that process can be anywhere from five to 65 days. As a result, in 28 of 208 cases approved by a warden and regional director, the inmate died before a receiving final approval by the BOP director.

A well-managed compassionate release program would save money and help with persistent overcrowding. According to the BOP's own 2013 budget, early releases could save $3.2 million each year.

But the current program does neither, according to the DOJ IG. Because the BOP doesn't track costs for inmates eligible for consideration, and hasn't done an analysis of how much it has saved by savings releasing inmates, neither BOP or the DOJ IG can estimate how much poor management has cost taxpayers.

The inspector general gave the BOP a long list of recommendations for fixing the ineffective program. Major changes the DOJ IG recommended include expanding the program to non-medical cases; updating written policies; assessing costs for health services to severely ill inmates; and tracking all request to ensure a timely process for gravely ill prisoners. --- Michal Conger

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