Senators ask Justice Department why only two of 296 release requests were approved after then-Attorney General Eric Holder said more elderly or seriously ill prisoners would be freed.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators led by Brian Schatz (D-HI) has asked the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to take a fresh look at expanding compassionate release programs for elderly inmates. The attention is long overdue, writes Keith Humphreys of Stanford University in the Washington Post. From 2009 to 2013, the number of federal prisoners over 50 increased by 25 percent even as the figure for the incarcerated under age 50 dropped. Remarkably, BOP houses more than 10,000 inmates who are in their 60s, 70s or 80s.
Older inmates have significantly higher medical costs than younger inmates. Elderly inmates also often need special accommodations (such as lower bunks or wheelchair-accessible areas) the BOP is ill-equipped to provide, according to a 2013 report by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2013 that compassionate release programs would be expanded for BOP inmates who were elderly, seriously ill or both. As senators noted in a letter to acting BOP director Thomas Kane and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, only 2 of the 296 release requests made by elderly inmates were granted during the first 13 months Holder’s expanded guidelines were in place. The senators are asking the BOP to explain why compassionate release has been so rarely granted, as well as what could be done to expand it. The scientific field of behavioral economics would suggest that at least part of the problem lies less in the merits of individual inmate cases and more in the “default” for decision-making about compassionate release. Many elderly and infirm prisoners do not receive compassionate release unless significant time and effort is expended by the inmate and multiple levels of the federal bureaucracy, Humphreys says. If anyone at any level disapproves or just doesn’t put in any effort one way or the other, the compassionate release isn’t granted. If the bureaucracy is simply slow at reviewing even the most meritorious cases, the release isn’t granted, which is why a significant proportion of applicants die waiting for their case to wind its way through the system.