Federal Courts Appear Reluctant To Release Inmates Due To COVID-19 Crisis

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With the New Jersey federal courts having suspended in-person proceedings due to the COVID-19 crisis, criminal matters have recently stalled to a large extent. But one notable exception is inmate applications to be released from prison for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic. To date, such applications appear to have met with little success.

For example, this past Monday (March 30, 2020), Magistrate Judge Hammer denied an application under the federal pretrial detention statute (18 U.S.C. § 3142) of two defendants in pretrial custody at the Essex County Correctional Facility. Judge Hammer rejected the defendants’ arguments that:

  • International travel restrictions eliminated their risk of flight, finding that their resources and experiences still make such travel possible;
  • They were particularly susceptible to contracting the virus in a jail environment, finding that the facility had undertaken extensive measures to address COVID-19 and that their age and medical conditions were not extraordinary; and
  • Their inability to meet with their attorneys was prejudicing their preparation for trial, finding that counsel could perform tasks related to such preparation. Id.

And just today (April 3, 2020), the Third Circuit issued a precedential decision denying a “compassionate release” motion under the federal First Step Act (18 U.S.C. § 3582) of a defendant serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton. See United States v. Raia, ___ F.3d ___, No. 20-1033 (3d Cir. April 3, 2020). On March 3, 2020, while the government’s appeal of his sentence was pending, the defendant requested compassionate release from the Bureau of Prisons, claiming that “he faces heightened risk of serious illness or death from the virus since he is sixty-eight-years old and suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and heart issues.” Slip Op. at 5. But before the BOP responded, and before its 30-day response period had elapsed, the defendant filed a motion for the same relief before Judge Martini, who had sentenced him. Id. On March 26, 2020, Judge Martini denied the motion by finding that the pending appeal divested him of jurisdiction, but his Order noted that he would have granted the motion and released the defendant to home confinement in light of the COVID-19 pandemic “[d]ue to the increased risk posed by a custodial term” and because the defendant’s “offense was non-violent and [he] has otherwise been a highly productive, charitable member of his community.” Id. at 6 (quoting Order).

Rather than appeal that Order, the defendant filed a compassionate release motion directly with the Third Circuit. Id. Alternatively, the defendant asked the Circuit to return jurisdiction to Judge Martini by dismissing the government’s appeal of his sentence without prejudice. Id. But the Court found that it lacked the power to grant either form of relief because (1) compassionate release motions can only be addressed to the sentencing court, and (2) an adverse party’s appeal can only be dismissed as a sanction for noncompliance with procedural rules. Id. at 6-7.

The Third Circuit did note that it could remand the case while retaining jurisdiction over the government’s appeal, thereby providing Judge Martini with limited jurisdiction to consider the defendant’s compassionate release motion. Id. at 7. But the Court refused to do so by deeming any such remand futile because the defendant’s failure to exhaust his administrative remedy before the BOP “presents a glaring roadblock foreclosing compassionate release at this point.” Id. In that regard, the Third Circuit noted that the COVID-19 pandemic does not lessen – to the contrary, it increases – the need for “strict compliance” with the BOP exhaustion requirement:

We do not mean to minimize the risks that COVID-19 poses in the federal prison system, particularly for inmates like Raia. But the mere existence of COVID-19 in society and the possibility that it may spread to a particular prison alone cannot independently justify compassionate release, especially considering BOP’s statutory role, and its extensive and professional efforts to curtail the virus’s spread. Given BOP’s shared desire for a safe and healthy prison environment, we conclude that strict compliance with § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s exhaustion requirement takes on added – and critical – importance. And given the Attorney General’s directive that BOP “prioritize the use of [its] various statutory authorities to grant home confinement for inmates seeking transfer in connection with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” we anticipate that the exhaustion requirement will be speedily dispatched in cases like this one. Id. at 8 (citations omitted).

In short, the federal courts appear reluctant to release inmates due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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