The Bureau of Prisons is on track to release about 110 federal prisoners this fiscal year under its revised and expanded Compassionate Releases/Reduction in Sentence program.

The Bureau generally keeps the number secret, but, in response to a request, a BoP spokesman told The Clemency Report that 56 prisoners had been released from October 1, 2014 through April 3, 2015.

At this rate, about 110 federal prisoners will be released during the federal government’s 2015 budget year, which runs from October 1-September 30.

This would be the highest in the program’s history but still a sliver — one-twentieth of one percent — of the 208,609 federal prisoners.

The federal Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence (CR/RIS) program is a misunderstood and (for reasons that aren’t clear) seldom-used program. The BoP revised the program’s regulations after news reports and an Inspector General report detailed failings in the program.

George with his son, daughter-in-law and grandkids

Non-violent drug offender George Daniel, 75, whose medical condition had left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak, was denied compassionate release. He’s shown here with his family during healthier times.

Despite revised regulations, the program is still clouded in secrecy and bureaucracy, making it the center of much mystery and sadness as sick, elderly prisoners continue to die in prison despite appearing to qualify for compassionate release.

Just as importantly, the second part of the program — Reductions in Sentences — appears to be oddly dormant. The Justice Department has engaged in a cumbersome effort to increase the use of presidential clemency to accomplish similar goals but, under its self-imposed clemency procedures, has struggled to produce a significant number of releases. (More are expected shortly.)

Larry Duke, 68, a marijuana lifer released after serving nearly 25 years, was a rare and notable exception of the CR/RIS achieving its goals. As Larry notes in this interview, the Bureau’s authority is much broader than releasing old and sick prisoners and applies to “healthy as a horse” prisoners, such as himself, in many cases.

Under federal law, the Bureau of Prisons has authority to release prisoners who meet specific criteria (outlined in these regulations). The regulation discuss mostly a prisoner’s age, time served and (ill) health — thus the name “compassionate release” — and the importance of the release not creating a danger to the community.

Crucially, the Bureau has authority to grant a “reductions in sentence” to any prisoner for “extraordinary or compelling circumstances that could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing.” These circumstances can relate to a specific prisoner (such as an inmate’s accomplishments in prison, as in Larry’s case) or to broader justice concerns (such as prison overcrowding or changing  marijuana laws) or a combination of the two.

The Bureau of Prisons — not Congress or the courts — defines “extraordinary and compelling” and judges when the standard is met. The Bureau is part of the executive branch (Justice Department), putting the scope of the program in President Obama’s  hands.

Many prisoners believe CR/RIS are rarely granted, even to qualified inmates, because the Bureau of protecting the size of its workforce. However, there is no hard evidence to support this claim. The more likely reason seems to be the natural inability of bureaucracies to produce much of anything.

Federal prisons now hold nearly 5,000 prisoners older the 65, mostly non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences under the mandatory minimums imposed in the 1980s. (See these elderly pot lifers.)

Others are “old law” (pre-1986) cases that were not covered in the revised regulations, apparently through bureaucratic ignorance or indifference that “old law” prisoners needed the same reforms as “new law” cases.

For example, the nation’s longest serving marijuana prisoner — Antonio Bascaro, 80 — would clearly qualify after 35 years for compassionate release as a non-violent marijuana offender if he was a “new law” prisoner. But, for Catch 22 reasons that make no sense, this wonderful old Cuban (who spends most of his days  in a wheelchair or with a walker) is an “old law” prisoner who can’t be released because he has been in prison too long.

 The program is especially tough on foreign nationals, partly because they have no family able to take them.

A notable exception is 93-year-old Carlos Tapia-Ponce, a thoughtful and amazingly healthy Mexican, whose been in prison since 1989 for cocaine. The former Mexican customs inspector, never violent, has a family ready to welcome him back home. Instead, Carlos is a tragic example of how the drug war wastes lives and tax money to house a 93-year-old man while accomplishing nothing.

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