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A Prisoner’s Dilemma: Why COVID-19 Must Serve as a Catalyst to Address Compassionate Release Limitations in Federal Prison

By Mary M. Haasl. Full Text.

COVID-19 significantly impacted the U.S. prison population. Given concerns surrounding its rapid spread through prisons, many federal inmates petitioned for compassionate release during the pandemic’s initial months. This significant increase in compassionate release petitions has yielded an impactful case study regarding the significant limitations posed by the compassionate release statute as written—particularly related to its exhaustion of administrative remedy requirement.

Under the First Step Act of 2018, inmates must exhaust their administrative remedies before petitioning the district court for compassionate release. With concerns surrounding COVID-19 spread, some federal district courts allowed the waiver of the exhaustion requirement, while other did not. Although the present waiver issue has somewhat resolved itself with time, the exhaustion issue remains for future health crises.

This Note considers the current limitations of the compassionate release’s exhaustion requirement by analyzing the court split and assessing the statute’s plain language, congressional intent, and federal case law. The Note argues that, given the statute’s clear ambiguity and courts’ inability to fully address the issue, the legislature must clarify the First Step Act’s intention to ensure that judicial discretion is available in all circuits to waive the compassionate release exhaustion requirement during other similar national health emergencies.