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Using Compassionate Release Motions to Reduce Federal Sentences

Using Compassionate Release Motions to Reduce Federal Sentences

Getting a reduced sentence is hard, but not impossible. Compassionate release is one way federal prisoners can get their sentences shortened. I’ll explain how it works, what the requirements are, and some tips for making a successful motion.

What is Compassionate Release?

Compassionate release allows judges to reduce someone’s prison sentence for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons. These might be serious health issues, elderly age, death of a caregiver, or other situations.

The First Step Act of 2018 expanded compassionate release. Before, only the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could file motions. Now prisoners can file directly with the court after exhausting administrative remedies or 30 days after the warden receives their request.

Requirements for Compassionate Release

To get a sentence reduction, you’ll need to show:

  • Extraordinary and compelling circumstances
  • You are not a danger to others or the community
  • The factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) support release

Let’s break these down.

Extraordinary and Compelling Circumstances

Courts decide case-by-case what counts as extraordinary and compelling. Medical conditions like terminal illness or serious cognitive decline may qualify. Courts also consider things like:

  • Age and length of sentence already served
  • Inability to get medical care in prison
  • Death or incapacity of a spouse or caregiver

The First Step Act said courts don’t need to stick to BOP policy statements. So judges have more flexibility now. Still, it’s a high bar to meet.

Not a Danger to the Community

You’ll need to convince the judge you won’t be a danger if released. Supportive letters from staff or programming certificates can help. So can a solid release plan with housing and other basics arranged.

Certain crimes like violence, terrorism, or sex offenses make this harder. But it’s not impossible, especially with health issues or old age.

Section 3553(a) Factors

These factors include things like the nature of the crime, your history, need to promote respect for the law and provide “just punishment.” The judge weighs if early release fits with these.

You’ll need to explain why reducing your sentence is consistent with section 3553(a). Remorse, good behavior in prison, and not being able to get medical care behind bars all help.

Tips for Filing for Compassionate Release

Making a winning motion takes strategy. Here are some tips:

  • File as soon as you meet the 30-day rule or exhaust remedies.
  • Get medical records and doctor letters supporting release.
  • Have an airtight release plan lined up.
  • Research similar successful cases. Facts really matter.
  • Explain how you’ve changed and any low recidivism.

Having a lawyer helps, but isn’t required. Be detailed, yet concise. Follow court rules for formatting and page limits.

What’s Next if You Win?

If granted, you may:

  • Be released right away, or
  • Have home confinement for some period before full release.

You’ll likely get supervision conditions like drug testing, treatment, halfway house stay or GPS monitoring. Follow all rules so you don’t risk going back.


Compassionate release is hard to get. But the First Step Act improved access for federal prisoners with extraordinary reasons. Make sure your motion checks all the boxes. Get medical proof and release plan lined up. With strong facts and some luck, you may get a reduced sentence.


First Step Act of 2018: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/3582

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