In 2009, the Lockerbie Bomber was released from prison and allowed to return to his home country because he was terminally ill. Also, Susan Atkins, one of the notorious Manson Family, is also asking for release on the grounds that she is dying of brain cancer. Both of these cases involve the Federal law of compassionate release.
Federal Compassionate Release law was amended in November of 2007 to define the criteria for “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances.
The prisoner must no longer be a danger to the community in the eyes of the court, and must not be sentenced to life without parole to be eligible for compassionate release.
The victims or the victims’ families are allowed to testify at a compassionate release hearing, just as they are at parole hearings. This can be very emotional, as most prisoners serving life sentences have committed heinous crimes, and of course the victims usually feel they should die in prison.
What are the Conditions for Compassionate Release?
In order for a prisoner with a life sentence to qualify for compassionate release, the prisoner must be able to prove that he or she is suffering from a terminal illness and has less than 6 months to live, or that they have an illness so debilitating that they can no longer provide self-care.
They must be released to a medical facility, and must prove that there are adequate finances to pay for such a facility.
The prisoner must also prove that, should they live beyond the 6 months, that they will not pose any threat to society.
Can Compassionate Release be Granted to Prisoners Without Life Sentences?
Compassionate release can be granted in non-life cases. The scenarios may change, but a case in point would be for someone charged with a non-violent crime and transformed to become a model prisoner and someone who have children without a living family member to look after them. However, these inmates would still need to demonstrate that they would create no risk to the community, and that they have the capacity to support their own family.
In this case, they would be granted an early parole, and would be subject to all parole requirements once released.
The Controversy Over Compassionate Release
Victim’s Rights groups oppose most compassionate releases, because of a belief that when a crime is committed, the violator must serve their full sentence in order to be justly punished.
Groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) lobby congress for legislation which is not as restrictive, and provides more leeway to judges in compassionate release cases.
The loophole in this law is that Bureau of Prisons can arrange early release for any prisoner at any time, and has the sole authority to override the provisions of the law and determine what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances.
It is an ongoing debate, which arises each time a prisoner applies for early release for compassionate reasons. The United States, however, is a compassionate country, so there is little chance that these laws will be rescinded in the future.