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Beyond Rehabilitation: Personal Achievement and Selfless Service as Grounds for Federal Compassionate Release

by Luke E. Sommer and James A. Lockhart

Prior to the passage of the First Step Actof 2018, federal prisoners had to rely on the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“Director”) to file motions for compassionate release on their behalf. Weirdly enough, that rarely happened. As a result, Congress took action and altered Title 18, U.S.C., § 3582(c)(1)(A) to allow prisoners to file their own motion. The floodgates opened, and thousands filed with a significant portion receiving relief. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission Compassionate Release Data Report, Fiscal Years 2020 to 2022, out of 25,416 applications, 4,194 prisoners have received a sentence reduction or release through this statute.

This gold rush was not without its problems. The statute authorizing U.S. District Courts to disturb the finality of federal sentences requires that “extraordinary and compelling” grounds exist in order to justify relief and points to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for guidance in determining what extraordinary and compelling actually means. While this seems like a non-issue, the reality is a little more complicated.

The Guideline at issue – § 1B1.13 – hadn’t been updated since compassionate release was first conceived decades prior and, as a result, was hopelessly out of date. The § 1B1.13 policy statement referred only to motions filed by the Director. This created the judicial equivalent of bedlam, with thousands of motions filed and contradictory rulings being issued from one side of the nation to the other. For the most part, the chaos in the lower courts was alleviated when all but one Circuit (the Eleventh going its own way in United States v. Bryant, 996 F.3d 1243 (11th Cir. 2021)) ruled that the policy statement is “not applicable,” leaving discretion to District Court judges to puzzle out exactly what qualifies as extraordinary and compelling.

However, there is one exception. According to 28 U.S.C. § 994(t), “[r]rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason” for a reduction in sentence. While disappointing to hundreds of prisoners who are well and truly rehabilitated, this makes a certain degree of sense. As U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein put it, “the ordinary meaning of ‘rehabilitation’ is a change in a defendant’s circumstances that leads to a return to society with no further criminal activity.” United States v. Torres, 464 F. Supp. 3d 651 (S.D.N.Y. 2020). “Under this definition,” Judge Stein continued, “rehabilitation is not uncommon.” And it isn’t. According to Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that out of 25,000 offenders, 68.3% never returned to prison.

For prisoners whose only grounds for compassionate relief stem from their post-sentencing rehabilitation and other personal accomplishment, this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is especially frustrating when you see the spectrum of what courts have found to constitute rehabilitation; it is not uncommon to see petitioners with six months of clear conduct time and a couple of prisoner-led education classes under their belt being lumped in with men and women who have amassed decades of clear conduct and earned four-year degrees or better. Unfortunately, it’s the law.

Or is it? When a term goes undefined by statute, the Supreme Court has directed that the term be given its ordinary meaning. In most Circuits, that means roughly whatever we find in the dictionary. In the case of rehabilitation, the statute is silent, leaving District Courts to pore over the dusty copy of Webster’s sitting on their desk (or a more recent smartphone app) as they hunt for a fitting definition. The one Judge Stein found, quoted above, shows just how low a bar rehabilitation sets, and more importantly, it points out that a majority of the truly impressive accomplishments accumulated by prisoners over the years are not actually evidence of rehabilitation at all but rather of something more. In short, if a prisoner accomplishes something beyond what is necessary to safely reintegrate them into their release community without further criminal misconduct, then that accomplishment is not simply more evidence of rehabilitation. As Judge Stein reasoned, it “exceed[s] the bound[s] of what we consider rehabilitation.”

This is good news, for obvious reasons. Federal prisons have no shortage of programs that offer prisoners the ability to contribute to both their prison and release communities. The Life Connections program offered by the Religious Services Department at U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute has historically offered program participants the opportunity to make “Happy Hats,” which are then donated to sick children. The Psychology Services Department likewise offers prisoners opportunities to contribute to institutional mental health through participation in a variety of programs such as the Inmate Companion program, where participants sit with prisoners struggling with suicidal ideation and help them through some of the darkest periods in their life.

Compassionate release remains a highly subjective process, with each District Court Judge using their own best judgment. Still, this trend of recognizing conduct that goes above and beyond the low bar set by the common definition of rehabilitation is encouraging to say the least. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and the new § 1B1.13 policy statement due for release at the end of the year will cement this as a fixture in the calculus that governs sentence reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A).

 

Luke Elliott Sommer is a former U.S. Army Ranger who is incarcerated because of a PTSD related event. He is presently halfway through his BSc in Psychology, is taking a Harvard Law School course, and has a novel ready for release. He works in the education department mentoring prisoners to pass their GED, and he was a successful pro se recipient of a Compassionate Release case. 

James A. Lockhart is also working on a Psychology degree, taking a Harvard Law School course, and is in the process of completing his first novel. He and Sommer help other prisoners write and submit Compassionate Release motions and other legal documents. 

 

 

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