Volume 61

Anything But Compassion: The Conflict Between Exhaustion and Compassionate Release

by Ciara N. Cooney

Horacio Estrada-Elias was a ninety-year-old prisoner with less than eighteen months to live due to congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and chronic kidney disease when he requested compassionate release. He was serving a life sentence for conspiracy to distribute large quantities of marijuana. A non-violent offense that nonetheless carried a mandatory life term because of the quantity involved. Despite recognizing Estrada-Elias’ dire health conditions, the federal judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky denied his request for compassionate release.

Incarceration in the United States is neither compassionate nor rehabilitative. From 1988 to 2012, the average length of federal prison sentences more than doubled, without any accompanying demonstration that longer sentences deter crime. And the conditions of confinement are “designed to diminish the self and weaken the individual.” Prisoners are exposed to abuse, assault, and unrestrained violence; denied treatment for mental and physical illnesses; isolated from their loved ones and, in some instances, from all human contact; and subjected to the whims of corrupt and abusive correctional staff.

After parole was abolished for federal prisoners, compassionate release became one of the few avenues for relief from incarceration. This sentencing reconsideration procedure allows courts to reduce an incarcerated person’s sentence for extraordinary and compelling reasons when the court is assured that such a reduction complies with federal sentencing factors, including public safety. However, the compassionate release process is anything but compassionate.


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