US weighs changes for ill, ageing inmates

2016-03-10 22:05


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Washington - Months after being sent to prison for a fraud conviction, Clarence Rice began experiencing severe stomach pains that required extended hospital visits. Then came the diagnosis of bile duct cancer - and, with it, the painful acceptance that he'd have just months to live.

His one hope for freedom was a federal programme that permits the early release of certain ageing and ailing prisoners. But prison officials denied his request on the grounds that he hadn't served enough of his sentence. Rice died in January 2013 at the age of 64, after a year in custody.

"It was such a painful experience, so painful and difficult," recalled his daughter, Allison Rice.

Now, the US Sentencing Commission, the independent panel that sets sentencing policy, is weighing changes to the Bureau of Prisons' compassionate release program that can free prisoners for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons.

Prison officials have described prisoners 50 and older as their fastest-growing demographic, up by 25% from 2009 to 2013. Yet even though studies show that the elderly are far less likely to re-offend after release, prison officials have struggled to define who should be considered.

The result: inmates have sometimes died behind bars even after they've been found to meet the criteria for release.

Advocates hope the review process can bring clarity and consistency. But Justice Department officials have urged caution. Changing the eligibility requirements dramatically could have unintended consequences, such as forcing the prison system to release fraudster Bernie Madoff or spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, they warn.

Serious criminal histories 

More than a third of inmates 50 and older have serious criminal histories, and relatively few are seriously ill, federal officials say. The government estimates that about 97% of their older inmates are healthy and can care for themselves, and less than 1% require the most serious level of medical care.

"Simply put, the Bureau does not house a large percentage of inmates with significant medical concerns or disabilities," the department said in a filing.

The commission is responsible for developing the criteria that prisons and courts use to determine which prisoners should be considered. Judges can order a sentencing reduction based on a request from prison officials for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons.

Broadly speaking, the privilege is intended for inmates with terminal illnesses as well as elderly inmates who have served a significant portion of their sentences and are deemed harmless to society. Officials take into account factors including criminal history, the nature of the crime, the inmate's age and the length of time served.

But the release programme has been called a bureaucratic mess by the Justice Department's inspector general. In a 2013 report, the IG identified 28 of 208 cases in which inmates had been recommended for release by a warden or regional director, but died before a final decision could be made by the Bureau of Prisons director.

The Justice Department subsequently revised eligibility requirements to expand consideration for inmates 65 and older for both medical and non-medical reasons, including those suffering from chronic illnesses who have already served at least half their sentences. Even then, the IG said last year that some of the new provisions were vague and unclear.

In total last year, the Bureau of Prisons director approved 99 requests and denied 117, according to Justice Department data.

The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums is asking the commission to make inmates 50 and older who have served at least half their sentences eligible for release.

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