Out of dozens of requests for sentence reductions from inmates with health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, federal judges in Colorado approved just three in the final four months of 2020.
Judges have the power to apply legal criteria differently when weighing requests for so-called compassionate release, Colorado Politics reported Sunday.
Federal inmates can petition courts directly if there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to leave prison, which could include elevated threat to life from COVID-19.
Jackie Fielding of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said judges can make varied interpretations.
While some judges may interpret the coronavirus to be a risk factor, “others are saying that unless you can prove that there’s been enough transmission within your facility specifically, it’s not extraordinary and compelling enough,” Fielding said.
In 24 opinions published from September through December in response to compassionate release requests, judges in the U.S. District Court in Colorado found the health condition of inmates or the level of virus transmission in prisons was not severe.
The judges commonly denied requests to those who were not 65 or older, had not served 75% of their sentence or whose family circumstances did not merit release.
In two opinions denying compassionate release, Senior Judge Marcia S. Krieger found inmates may be safer from COVID-19 in prison than outside of it.
As of Jan. 14, the federal Bureau of Prisons reported 190 federal inmate deaths from the coronavirus, with 38,535 recoveries, out of a population of 123,052 in bureau facilities.
Virginia Grady, federal public defender for Colorado and Wyoming, declined to comment on compassionate release.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.