Conservative U.S. judicial regions less apt to grant inmates compassionate release -commission report

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WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - Requests by federal prisoners for compassionate release soared following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but approvals were granted far less often in conservative-leaning multistate U.S. judicial regions than in more liberal-leaning ones, an analysis released on Thursday showed.

The report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the federal judiciary, examined how the legal landscape for compassionate release changed in 2020, as COVID-19 swept through the prison system, sickening thousands of inmates.

The World Health Organization in March 2020 declared that COVID-19 had caused a pandemic. The report found that between that month and the following month, there was a 900% increase in the number of federal inmates who applied for compassionate release - allowed when a prisoner demonstrates "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.

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Federal prisoners are eligible if they meet certain criteria such as terminal illness or advanced age.

The report looked at compassionate release requests and approvals during the 2020 fiscal year, running from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, finding an overall grant rate of nearly 26%. But there were stark regional differences, as seen in approval rates registered in the various multistate federal court regions around the country.

For instance, federal courts in the liberal-leaning 1st Circuit, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island, had a grant rate of 47.5%. Federal courts in the conservative-leaning 5th Circuit, which includes Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, had a grant rate of 13.7%.

After criminal justice reform advocates complained that the federal Bureau of Prisons rarely granted compassionate release requests, Congress in 2018 passed legislation allowing inmates to appeal directly to federal courts for release.

The Sentencing Commission is responsible for defining what constitutes "extraordinary and compelling." But shortly after it laid out its compassionate release policy, the agency lost its quorum - the minimum number of members required to conduct business or take a vote - in 2019 and has been unable to update it since.

"This report underscores why it is crucial for the commission to regain a quorum to again have the ability to address important policy issues in the criminal justice system, such as compassionate release," acting Chair Judge Charles Breyer, the seven-member commission's sole remaining member, said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors can also play a role in whether inmates can win compassionate release in court.

In an interview with NPR that aired on Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he will be issuing a new policy, after an NPR report found that some prosecutors are forcing offenders who plead guilty to waive their rights to file for compassionate release down the road.

"That sounded wrong, and we, immediately after I read your piece, started investigating that," Garland told NPR.

"Very soon we will be issuing new policies to prevent those kind of across-the-board requirements that defendants waive their rights to seek compassionate release," he added.

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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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