Abstract: In the 1980s, Congress introduced compassionate release to counteract the increased rigidity of our federal sentencing system. This mechanism allowed courts, through a motion filed by the Bureau of Prison’s director, to reduce a prisoner’s sentence if “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances warrant such a reduction. However, because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) seldom brought these motions, few people were released early via compassionate release. At the same time, public discourse and concerns regarding mass incarceration have continued to grow, causing lawmakers to revisit and revise compassionate release through the First Step Act of 2018 to ensure that this mechanism’s potential is fully realized.
From the First Step Act’s passage in 2018 until 2020, however, compassionate release was still more modestly utilized than legislators envisioned. This changed when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the United States and its prisons. The pandemic has presented courts with new opportunities to expand the use of compassionate release. While some legal scholars have examined the pandemic’s impact on courts’ compassionate release decisions, this Comment is the first to address a split among district court judges on how to interpret the relevant compassionate release statute’s exhaustion requirement. Some courts have interpreted the statute to allow prisoners to file a motion for compassionate release thirty days after a warden’s receipt of the request, regardless of whether the warden acted upon the request within that timeframe. In contrast, other courts have held that, if the warden denied the request within thirty days of receipt, the defendant must first exhaust administrative remedies within the BOP before filing a motion with the court. This Comment argues that courts should allow prisoners to directly file a motion with the court even if the warden timely denied the request. Not only is this interpretation more faithful to the statutory text, but it also allows courts to reach the merits of the case and thus grant more motions for compassionate release, which aligns with the First Step Act’s purpose of alleviating our current mass incarceration crisis.