Why Are Bureaucrats—Not Judges—Deciding Whether Terminally Ill Prisoners Die Behind Bars?

Why Are Bureaucrats—Not Judges—Deciding Whether Terminally Ill Prisoners Die Behind Bars?

Why Are Bureaucrats—Not Judges—Deciding Whether Terminally Ill Prisoners Die Behind Bars?

This is not how our “compassionate release” system is supposed to work.


Allison Rice’s dad was a 64-year-old church-going Iowan father of four who owned a leasing business, got into financial trouble, and broke the law trying to get out of it. He was a danger to no one, ever. Clarence Allen Rice died of cancer, in prison instead of at home with his family, because the system didn’t work. It still doesn’t. That needs to change.

This is his story, told to Brave New Films by his daughter. It’s the story of a system that empowers bureaucrats to play God. It’s a system that we should be able to change. After all, if there is one thing both parties can probably agree on, it is that unelected bureaucrats should not be making decisions about life and death.

More than 30 years ago, Congress tried to create a way for prisoners like Rice—terminally ill people and those facing extraordinary family circumstances—to petition for compassionate release from incarceration. That didn’t mean that if the prisoner’s story checked certain boxes they would automatically get their sentence shortened and go home. It only created a system that would allow a small subset of people the chance to try.

But the system is fatally flawed. The way it is supposed to work is that the prisoner petitions the Bureau of Prisons. The BOP then figures out whether the prisoner meets the criteria for application for compassionate release. If the criteria are met, the petition is supposed to be passed along to the sentencing judge for a final decision.

This makes sense. The sentencing judge knows the facts of the case and is in a good position to determine whether, for example, public safety would be at risk if the prisoner were released. The judge can also be presumed to be the best person to decide—to the extent that one human can reasonably make this determination—whether another human being “deserves” to get out of a prison.

In Rice’s case—as in all compassionate-release cases—the prison officials decided that they, not the judge, were best suited to make this determination. Some bureaucrat in the BOP or the US Department of Justice felt that Rice had not served enough time behind bars, and refused to pass his petition along to the judge—regardless of the fact that his case met their own criteria that should have forced them to do so.

The Federal Sentencing Commission has made it clear that this is not how it’s supposed to work and issued guidelines that say so. Nonetheless, we believe it is still happening and people who are already devastated by disease, by old age, are being further tortured by being left to die alone, without friends and family, behind bars.

Congress should act. There are so many ways lately that we are being forced to question what kind of country we truly want to be. Here is one small way we can answer.

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