Happy Season of Compassion! Okay, well maybe there’s no official season by that name, but I always think of this time of year -- from Thanksgiving through Hanukah and Christmas -- as the season when people are at their most giving and compassionate. It’s during this season that we give thanks for the blessings in our life and try to remember, if not serve, those who might be struggling.
Last week, FAMM joined with Human Rights Watch (HRW) to release a new report on a law that was designed to show compassion to those in prison who really need it. That law, passed nearly 30 years ago, gave federal courts authority to grant people early release from prison -- commonly referred to as “compassionate release” -- for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. The law makes good sense.
The law comes with one serious catch, however. A judge cannot grant a prisoner compassionate release unless the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) files a motion asking the judge to do so. The FAMM-HRW report, titled ”The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in U.S. Federal Prisons,” revealed that the BOP makes such motions very rarely. Since 1992, the BOP has filed only two dozen motions per year, despite the fact that the federal prison population now exceeds 218,000 and is getting older.
The BOP’s disregard for the law and lack of compassion has resulted in families being kept from their incarcerated loved ones when they died, and in taxpayers footing the bill for extraordinary, end-of-life health care expenses that could have been shouldered by the offenders or their families. This is the kind of nonsense that happens when jailers think it’s their job to be judges.
Our new report does not simply point out the problem; it also proposes solutions. I hope Congress and the administration will heed our call for reform, a call we plan to echo in the coming weeks and months. Given how much press coverage our report has generated – from the Associated Press to National Public Radio and many others – everyone should be aware of the problem now. Mary Price, our VP and general counsel, deserves enormous credit for her hard work on this report, as does her co-author, Jamie Fellner of HRW.
The Bureau of Prisons is not the only part of government failing to demonstrate mercy and compassion. President Obama, who said during the 2008 campaign that he knew how excessive drug mandatory minimum sentences are, has granted fewer pardons and commutations than any modern president. What’s stopping him?
The President could start by granting clemency to every federal prisoner serving a life prison sentence for drugs only! (Considering that a recent poll showed that just 7 percent of the American public thinks the drug war is working, Obama would be safe demonstrating that kind of mercy.) Or he could grant clemency to the prisoners serving crack cocaine sentences who didn’t benefit from the crack reforms passed two years ago because the reforms were not made retroactive. Talk about righting a wrong!
The President should also attend the forum we’re cohosting with the Heritage Foundation and the Constitution Project on December 10th to discuss ways to fix the broken clemency process. He would learn a lot!
Showing mercy through the robust use of compassionate release and presidential commutations could free thousands of people from prison who are not a threat to the public safety. If the President and the Bureau of Prisons need help finding deserving prisoners, we’re happy to assist them – we know lots of them.
In fact, it’s painful to think of the thousands of people in prison we know who will celebrate another holiday without their families. But I hope you will think about them. I hope you’ll make a phone call, or send a card or an email to a prisoner or a family affected by incarceration to remind them that they are not forgotten. It’s a simple act of caring that can spread great joy.
The Dalai Lama wisely observed, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Those are words to live by.
I hope you stay healthy and happy during this Season of Compassion!
P.S. This is also a good time to show compassion for your favorite sentencing non-profit! From now until the end of the month, every tax-deductible donation you make to FAMM will be matched dollar-for-dollar by another generous donor. Please help us take advantage of this month-long matching program by contributing today!