The Reinvigoration of Compassionate Release: A Legal Mechanism for Decarceration in the Era of COVID-19
Bernardy, Erin Jean
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The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the prison population; public health experts asserted that social distancing is the most effective strategy to decrease virus spread, and yet this practice is nearly impossible in prisons. Early release policies, such as compassionate release, serve to depopulate carceral facilities and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This study sought to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic reinvigorated the compassionate process and to discern the varied arguments used by defense attorneys and judges to support their positions on the compassionate release of federal defendants. Compassionate release court documents filed by the Federal Public Defender of the Western District of Washington between April 1st, 2020, and April 1st, 2021 (n=63) were qualitatively analyzed using content and thematic analysis. Arguments for release were organized around multiple themes including professional interpretation of compassionate release legislation, extraordinary and compelling reasons for release, and impact of release on public safety. Defense attorneys and judges varied in how they conceptualized compassionate release. There was also variation among judges in how they interpreted the viability of motions. These findings suggest that for compassionate release to be an effective strategy for prison de-population, the anti-release default within the criminal legal system must be addressed.
- Social work - Seattle