Compassionate Release for Aging Inmates Under the First Step Act

In United States v. Applewhite, No. 6:08-cr-60037-MC (Jan. 13, 2020), the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon discussed new standards for obtaining compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), as modified by the recently passed First Step Act. When an 80-year-old federal inmate’s health began to seriously deteriorate as he aged, he petitioned the Court for a reduction in his sentence that would allow for his early release. The First Step Act allows an inmate to file a motion directly with a district court for compassionate relief after exhausting all administrative remedies. The district court may then reduce the inmate’s sentence if the inmate is at least 70 years of age, has served 30 years in prison on the offense for which they were sentenced, is determined not to be a danger to the safety of the community, and if extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant the reduction.

In Applewhite, the Court found the inmate’s health concerns were an extraordinary and compelling reason to consider him for release. The inmate suffered from high blood pressure, Hepatitis C, and pre-glaucoma. He also had an inoperable aortic aneurysm and had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, the Court ultimately held that he could not be released because he remained a danger to the community. That conclusion was based on the fact that the inmate had been sentenced for robbery seven times over a span of fifty years, that five of those seven robberies had been committed while on supervised release (and within six months of being released from prison), and that the most recent robbery had taken place when the inmate was nearly 70 years old.

Where other similarly-aged inmates suffer from serious medical conditions but do not have a comparable prior history which might lead to a danger finding, compassionate release under the First Step Act may be an option. Additionally, as the nation continues to come to terms with the public health threat posed by COVID-19, it is important to recognize that prison populations face heightened risk due to confined conditions. According to health experts, individuals aged 65 years and older are also a particularly high-risk demographic. As a result, the risk of contracting the virus in prison may satisfy the requirement under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 that an inmate demonstrate an “extraordinary and compelling reason” warranting a sentence reduction. Compassionate release through the First Step Act may therefore be one route to relief for older inmates at risk of contracting COVID-19, provided they are able to meet the statute’s other eligibility requirements.