Opening the Safety Valve: A Second Look at Compassionate Release Under the First Step Act

March 4, 2022

Under federal law, judges are generally prohibited from changing a sentence once it has been imposed. Compassionate release, to put it simply, provides a “safety valve” against this general principle, allowing federal judges to reduce a prisoner’s sentence when it is warranted by “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” For the past thirty years, statutory and bureaucratic roadblocks made compassionate release an unlikely avenue for prisoners to receive sentence reductions. With the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, the U.S. Congress made the first significant changes to the compassionate release statute in decades, permitting defendants for the first time to bring such motions directly to their sentencing courts. An overwhelming majority of circuit courts have concluded that the First Step Act’s changes to the compassionate release statute mean that district judges are not free to consider any extraordinary and compelling reason that a defendant might raise. Nevertheless, appellate courts remain divided over what exactly constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for a sentence reduction.

This Note examines the historical development of, and rationales for, compassionate release and the reasons why appellate courts have struggled to define and apply the “extraordinary and compelling reasons” standard consistently. After recognizing that Congress’s goals in creating the compassionate release mechanism were to promote consistency while keeping the sentencing power in the judiciary, this Note proposes a two-part solution to balance these goals. This Note’s proposed framework ensures that judicial discretion continues to serve a critical role in compassionate release decisions and seeks to resolve the current disagreements among appellate courts.

March 2022

No. 4