The United States limits humanitarian release in plea agreements. Many say it is cruel. : NPR

The Brooklyn Federal Courthouse is seen on February 4, 2019.

Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

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Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

The United States limits humanitarian release in plea agreements. Many say it is cruel. : NPR

The Brooklyn Federal Courthouse is seen on February 4, 2019.

Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

Federal prosecutors have sought to limit the rights of defendants to seek compassionate release from prison in plea bargains across the country, a practice that advocates say undermines congressional intent and produces cruel results.

Two advocacy groups — Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – called on Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Tuesday to bar U.S. attorneys from including “pernicious” language in plea agreements.

In a copy of their letter exclusively provided to NPR, the groups said at least six jurisdictions across the country are using the provisions, either barring defendants from filing motions for early release due to extraordinary medical or family conditions, or by limiting them to just one of these call requests and barring.

“We understand that the Department of Justice has an interest in ensuring the finality of a sentence, but we are concerned that the recent behavior of [U.S. attorney’s offices] place the interest of efficacy and finality above all else, including the life of the person and their rights under the law,” reads the letter from Kevin Ring of the FAMM and Martin Sabelli of the NACDL.

A 65-year-old man in Arizona fought for months to withdraw his guilty plea after realizing it included limits on his ability to seek compassionate release. In another case, in northern California, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer called the limits “unacceptable” and “inhumane.”

“What happens if the defendant’s children are effectively orphaned by the death of their other parent? short prison sentence for a minor crime into a life sentence? wrote Breyer.

The Department of Justice did not comment on the lawyers’ letter.

Congress created a way to petition federal court for a compassionate release in 2018

Compassionate release is designed to give incarcerated people facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances a way to apply for early release. The Bureau of Prisons has rarely approved such requests, so in 2018 Congress gave prisoners the option to seek freedom in federal court, under the First Step Act. More than 4,000 people used this provision to win release.

Ring of the FAMM said the Justice Department’s limits on compassionate release are “disgusting”.

“I’m sure responding to many requests for compassionate release can be a nuisance for prosecutors, but trust me, it’s nothing compared to battling a deadly disease in prison during a global pandemic.” , did he declare.

Well over 90% of federal prosecutions end in guilty pleas, so the wording of plea agreements has a huge impact.

“People who plead guilty cannot know if their future is tied to a terminal illness, the death of their children’s sole caregiver, among many other tragic circumstances,” said Shanna Rifkin, Assistant General Counsel at FAMM. .

Part of the problem: the Sentencing Commission does not have a quorum

Lawyers said the situation was made even more difficult legally because the Sentencing Commission, a federal agency that sets advisory guidelines for sentencing in federal cases, has been virtually unable to operate. There are six vacancies on the panel, with only Breyer in place as interim chairman. The commission has not had a quorum for three years.

Among the jobs on his to-do list: defining what amounts to “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” that might warrant early release from prison.

The commission’s paralysis has become so acute that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, referred to it last month.

“I hope that in the near future the Commission can resume its important function in our criminal justice system,” Sotomayor wrote.

Breyer, the brother of retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, responded with his own call for action from the Biden administration last month.

“It is essential that the White House appoint and the Senate confirm enough commissioners to allow the Commission to resume its important statutory function of updating guidelines to deal with new policies, circuit conflicts and changes in the law,” he said in a statement. “It is particularly frustrating that the Board has been unable to implement significant changes made by the First Step Act of 2018, including changes to the procedures by which an offender can apply for compassionate release. .”


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