March 20, 2018

United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Re: Support for Granting Release and Compassion Effectively (GRACE) Act of 2018 

Dear Senator: 

Human Rights Watch is writing to encourage your co-sponsorship of the recently introduced bipartisan bill, Granting Release and Compassion Effectively (GRACE) Act (S. 2471). This legislation seeks to streamline the currently burdensome process of federal compassionate release for incarcerated people, who are aging, medically incapacitated, and/or whose family requires their presence due to a compelling circumstance. The GRACE Act would also create a higher threshold of accountability for all relevant administrators, warden, units and medical professionals in the Bureau of Prison (BOP)'s use of compassionate release. A prisoner should not be obligated to suffer in their cell, due to aging, an unforeseen illness or circumstance; the GRACE Act would prevent such suffering and amend sentences that are no longer necessary or humane. 

For many years, Human Rights Watch has called for federal legislative reform on compassionate release,[1] which permits aging  prisoners and those with physical or mental disabilities to reunite with their families, for their special health care needs. A prison sentence that may have constituted a just and proportionate punishment when it was imposed may become disproportionately severe in light of changed circumstances. To be consistent with human rights norms, a decision regarding whether a prisoner should remain confined should include careful consideration of whether continued imprisonment would be inhumane, cruel, degrading, or otherwise inconsistent with human dignity.[2] Existing federal law fails to do this sufficiently.

By 2019, aging prisoners will account for nearly 30 percent of the total prison population[3]. According to data analyzed by The Marshall Project and The New York Times, from 2013 to 2017, the Bureau of Prisons approved only 6 percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody.[4] A 2016 report from the Department of Justice’s Inspector General found the physical infrastructure of BOP institutions to be inadequate to house aging inmates and that compassionate release could help reduce overpopulation of the federal prison system, which is at approximately 36 percent over capacity, according to BOP data.[5]

Similarly, in the event of extreme circumstances with their family, such as the death of their children or their guardians, the system should take better cognizance of incarcerated persons’ interest in taking care of their family. Support for expanding and fortifying compassionate release has generated from the work of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Justice Department's Inspector General, bipartisan leaders in Congress, and major advocacy groups.

BOP's failure to grant compassionate releases when prisoners clearly meet the criteria, and subsequently, their failure to accurately collect and report acceptances and denials of such requests has generated a great deal of concern[6]. Once all mechanisms within the BOP have been depleted, compassionate release, as it stands today, does not allow the prisoner to appeal the BOP's denial of the release request to a district court. Under the GRACE Act:

  • ​The BOP would be required to notify families of a prisoner's terminal diagnosis within seven days, giving the family an opportunity to visit; 
  • Process and eligibility of compassionate release would be displayed and advertised to incarcerated persons; 
  • Annual data will be collected and reported on the BOP's use of compassionate release; 
  • Timely responses to compassionate requests would be administered consistently; 
  • Prison staff and prisoner's family or attorney could assist a prisoner in filing a compassionate release request; 
  • Allow incarcerated persons to petition for compassionate release to care for their minor child(ren), in the case of death or incapacitation of caregiver. 

We urge you to support the GRACE Act. If you would like to discuss this important issue further or would like additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at tylerj@hrw.org or at 202.612.4343.

Sincerely,

Jasmine L. Tyler
Advocacy Director, US Program

 

[1] Human Rights Watch, The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons, report, November 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/11/30/answer-no/too-little-compassionate....

[2] For an extended discussion of how age and incapacity affect the purposes of punishment that might be served by continued incarceration, as well as the relevant human rights jurisprudence, see Human Rights Watch, Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States, January 28, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/01/27/old-behind-bars-0.

[3] KiDeuk Kim & Bryce Peterson, “Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System,” Urban Institute, August 2014, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/33801/413222-Aging....

[4] Christie Thompson, “Old, Sick and Dying in Shackles,” The Marshall Project, March 7, 2018, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/03/07/old-sick-and-dying-in-shac....

[5] Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, “The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” February 2016, https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2015/e1505.pdf.

[6] Office of Senator Patrick Leahy, U.S. Senate, Schatz, Lee, Leahy Introduce Bipartisan Legislation To Improve Compassionate Release Process, Save Taxpayer Money, February 2018, https://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/schatz-lee-leahy-introduce-bipartisan...