WASHINGTON (AP) — Iowa businessman Clarence Rice had been imprisoned for wire fraud for a matter of months when he was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The prognosis was grim: He would have just a few more months to live.
His one hope for freedom was a federal program that permits the early release of certain aging and ailing prisoners. But a warden rejected his request on grounds that he had served only a fraction of his sentence. Rice died in January 2013 at the age of 64, less than two years after convictions for fraud that officials say caused millions of dollars in losses — and just weeks after his bid for release was turned down.
“It was such a painful experience — so painful and difficult,” recalled his daughter, Allison Rice, still shaken by the memories of her father’s gaunt and jaundiced face and her final visit with him.
Now, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the independent panel that sets sentencing policy, is weighing changes to the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release program that can free prisoners for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.
The issue is important, since prison officials have described prisoners 50 and older as their fastest-growing demographic, up by 25 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2013. Yet even though studies show that the elderly are far less likely to re-offend after release, prison officials have for years struggled to define who should and should not be considered. The result: Inmates have sometimes died behind bars even after they’ve been found to meet the criteria for release.
“There are people who are currently in prison who ought to see a reduction in sentence because circumstances have changed that make their continued incarceration inhumane and unnecessary,” Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group, said.
Advocates who want to open consideration to a broader swath of inmates hope the review process can bring long-absent clarity and consistency to the program.
The Justice Department, which already reworked the eligibility requirements in 2013, has created a working group to examine additional changes to current policy. But department officials have also urged caution. Changing the eligibility requirements dramatically could have unintended consequences, such as forcing the prison system to release fraudster Bernie Madoff or spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, they warn.
More than a third of inmates 50 and older have serious criminal histories, and relatively few are seriously ill, federal officials say. The government estimates that about 97 percent of their older inmates are healthy and can care for themselves, and less than 1 percent requires the highest level of medical care.
“Simply put, the bureau does not house a large percentage of inmates with significant medical concerns or disabilities,” the department said in a filing. “Many of those individuals are neither terminal nor debilitated, but rather are undergoing treatment for conditions from which they will recover.”
Under the process, judges can order a sentencing reduction based on a request from the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.
Broadly speaking, the privilege is intended for inmates with terminal illnesses as well as elderly inmates who have served a significant portion of their sentences. Officials take into account factors including criminal history, the nature of the crime, the inmate’s age and the length of time served.
But the program has been called a bureaucratic mess by the Justice Department’s inspector general. In a 2013 report the IG said the prison system lacked clear and consistent standards and recommended better training and updated national policies. It identified 28 of 208 cases in which inmates had been recommended for release by a warden or regional director, but died before a final decision could be made by the Bureau of Prisons director.
The Justice Department subsequently revised eligibility requirements to expand consideration for inmates 65 and older for both medical and nonmedical reasons, including those suffering from chronic illnesses who have already served at least half their sentences. Even so, the IG said last year that some of the new provisions were vague and unclear.
In total last year, the federal prisons director approved 99 requests and denied 117, according to Justice Department data.
The Sentencing Commission, which has asked for public feedback about whether to change the criteria, held a hearing last month and plans another next week. FAMM, the advocacy group, is asking the commission to consider making inmates 50 and older who have served at least half their sentences eligible for release.
It’s obviously too late for any policy change to benefit Rice, but his daughter, Allison, hopes other family members can avoid what she went through.
She still weeps at the memory of saying goodbye to her father for what would be the last time in a crowded and sterile visitation room, surrounded by other prisoners and their loved ones. And she remains dismayed by the terse rejection letters her family received from the prison just weeks before he died.
“You’re asking them for a favor, you’re asking them to let your dad out,” Allison Rice said. “You try to be on your best behavior and do everything they want you to do.”
But then “you get denied and you think, ‘That doesn’t make any sense’,” she said.