A glimmer of good news for people in prison seeking early release

U.S. v. Harris — criminal / sentencing — reversal — per curiam

Today, a rare bit of good news from the Third Circuit for incarcerated people seeking sentence reductions.  Sentence-reduction motions are one of the main tools available for fixing too-long sentences and for releasing inmates facing heightened risk from the covid pandemic.

A motion for reduction of a criminal sentence under 18 USC § 3582 — often referred to as a compassionate-release motion — must satisfy an administrative exhaustion requirement. That requirement provides in relevant part:

the court, upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or upon motion of the defendant after the defendant has fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the defendant’s behalf or the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by the warden of the defendant’s facility, whichever is earlier, may reduce the term of imprisonment

To “fully exhaust” a request, one must seek informal resolution, then submit an initial formal request to the prison, then wait for it to be denied (it’s always denied), then appeal the denial to the regional director, then wait for the appeal to be denied, then submit another appeal to the general counsel, and then wait for that to get denied. Good times.

Anyhow, the issue in this appeal was about how to interpret the compassionate-release statute’s administratative-exhaustion requirement. Specifically: if the BOP denies the request within 30 days, is the federal-court-after-30 days option still available? Or is the 30-day option available only if the BOP hasn’t done anything yet, so that if prisons deny the request within the 30 days then prisoners are locked into administratively exhausting all the way through before they can get to court?

Today, the Third Circuit held that a prisoner may file a compassionate-release motion in court 30 days after submission of the administrative request, even if prison denies it within the 30 days. The court relied on the plain text of the statute as well as the government’s concession on appeal.

The panel for the unsigned opinion was Shwartz, Restrepo, and Greenberg. The appeal was decided without oral argument.