Medical Parole-related Petitions in U.S. Courts: Support for Reforming Compassionate Release

Sarah Lucy Cooper, Cory Bernard

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Common across U.S. justice systems, compassionate release procedures typically allow prisoners to seek early release because of serious terminal, non-terminal, and/or age-related health issues. Across U.S. states, medical parole emerges as the most common method of compassionate release. Studies have identified various limitations in compassionate release practices, including the absence of both comprehensive reporting and tracking systems, and internal appeals processes. These absences result in limited knowledge about what issues petitioners and review authorities perceive as unfair about compassionate release, which frustrates evaluation of existing practices and the implementation of evidence-informed reform. One way to address this dearth of knowledge is to examine medical parole-related petitions in U.S. courts. This paper does just that. Part I summarizes the interplays of prisoner health(care), compassionate release, and the parole system. Part II outlines the rationale and design of our study, which sought to investigate: (1) what issues do petitioners raise in medical parole-related petitions to U.S. courts? (2) How do courts resolve such petitions? (3) Do the approaches of petitioners and courts highlight existing concerns about compassionate release? Part III reports our findings. In sum, case law reveals that petitioners have raised issues concerning frustrated access to the medical parole process; the denial of medical parole; irregularities in medical parole processes; improper application of eligibility and exclusion criteria; and the provision of inadequate medical care in prison. Courts generally dismiss appeals, relying on the high standards of proof required to both prove eligibility and/or improper parole-board decision-making; the discretionary nature of parole; standards of review that are highly deferential to parole authorities; and a lack of properly legally postured claims. Case law also reveals a propensity for prisoners to act pro se. Overall, case law can be mapped to four thematic areas where concerns about compassionate release practices already exist, namely (1) eligibility and exclusions; (2) releasing authorities; (3) processes; and (4) support for petitioners. The authors conclude that these findings further call for the reform of compassionate release to better serve both the interests of wider society and the United States? large, ageing, and medically comprised prison population.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)173-202
    Number of pages30
    JournalCreighton Law Review
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 1 Mar 2021


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