Alexandra George '21 is a double major in philosophy and political science. She conducts research with the Paper Prisons Initiative and is a 2020-21 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
The Aging Prison Population
As of 2019, there were over 1.5 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and jails in the United States. What is more, much of this population is rapidly aging. The number of individuals serving life sentences who were between 55 years old and 65 years old increased by over 150% between 1993 and 2015. Clearly, many inmates will soon reach the end of their lives in prison. However, prisons are ill-equipped to provide adequate palliative care. This combined with dying while incarcerated violates inmates’ human dignity.
What is Compassionate Release?
One solution to the above problem is compassionate release, which is a series of state and federal policies that release inmates from prison due to “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, including terminal illness, debilitating illness, and family emergencies. Compassionate release policies were first enacted at the federal level in 1984 as a part of the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA). Lawmakers intended for the SRA to be tough on crime, which translated to practices including the elimination of parole for all federal prisoners who committed a federal offense on or after November 1, 1987. Congress recognized that this would lead to unfair sentences, so Congress created “safety valves” that courts could use to prevent unjust sentences. Compassionate release is one such safety valve.
Despite this, compassionate release is rarely granted. Between 1990 and 2000, only 0.01% of the federal prison population were granted compassionate release annually. In fairness, Congress attempted to fix some of the administrative problems barring people from receiving compassionate release with the First Step Act of 2018. And these reforms were somewhat successful. In 2017, the year prior to Congress passing the First Step Act, twenty-four petitions were granted. In 2019, the year after Congress passed the First Step Act, 145 petitions were granted. Nevertheless, compassionate release is still clearly a woefully underutilized tool.
What Can Ethics Teach Us About Compassionate Release?
Seeing the statistics about the infrequency with which compassionate release was granted inspired me to write a paper about the ethics of compassionate release as a Hackworth Fellow. A key part of this paper looks at what ancient philosophers from across the globe might say about the ethics of compassionate release. First, Mencius, an ancient Chinese philosopher, would argue that granting compassionate release is ethical because we must extend our compassion as a society to suffering inmates in order to cultivate our innately good nature. Second, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophers such as Nāgārjuna argued that prisoners should be treated humanely, and that “those prisoners who are physically weak, and therefore pose less danger to society, should be released early.” Third, granting compassionate release is also ethical using an Aristotelian common good approach because denying compassionate release denies people their fair share, which in turn creates a worse society. Thus, the approaches of Mencius, Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and an Aristotelian notion of the common good yield the same conclusion: we need to grant compassionate release more than we currently are.
We recognize that granting compassionate release is often the ethical choice, especially considering that 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government all have compassionate release policies. Despite recognizing the ethics of compassionate release, we continue to allow administrative challenges at the state and federal level to prevent us from doing what we know is right. This is all the more concerning considering that it seems that the administrative challenges barring individuals from receiving compassionate release are simple to fix relative to the many great policy challenges lawmakers face.
As Bryan Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy, “simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of reciprocal humanity” (290). We are currently faced with a choice: what type of society do we want to be? Do we want to continue to treat compassionate release as a token ethical act, or do we want to make real change? Change is within reach, so long as we recognize and act on the “extraordinary and compelling” nature of compassion and reciprocal humanity.
Read the full paper: Compassionate Release_ An “Extraordinary and Compelling Problem”
About Alexandra George
"I’m a senior with a double major in philosophy and political science, born and raised in Los Angeles. As an aspiring lawyer, I enjoy studying the law, particularly as it intersects with politics and philosophy. I’m a member of the University Honors Program, the Communications Chair on the Honors Advisory Council, and president of the SCU Harry Potter Club. My hobbies include reading, contemplating philosophy, playing ukulele, and spending time with friends and family. My favorite role model is Ruth Bader Ginsburg."