Eighth Amendment; compassionate release; First Step Act of 2018; sentencing; U.S. Sentencing Commission; incarceration


People experience severe forms of harm while incarcerated, including medical neglect, prolonged solitary confinement, sexual and physical violence, and a host of other ills. But civil rights litigation under the Eighth Amendment—the most common vehicle through which people seek to redress these harms—presents significant practical and doctrinal barriers to incarcerated plaintiffs. Most notably, the Eighth Amendment’s “deliberate indifference” standard asks not whether a person has been harmed, but instead requires plaintiffs to demonstrate a criminally reckless mental state on the part of prison officials. Further, Eighth Amendment remedies are limited to damages or injunctions, which may not adequately redress a specific harm that a person is suffering. For these reasons, the Eighth Amendment has often fallen far short of providing litigants adequate relief.

At the same time, once a person is sentenced, the original sentencing judge generally has no control over whether a harm suffered in prison is remedied. However, since the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, people incarcerated in the federal system have a new vehicle for getting these kinds of claims into court: federal compassionate release. Compassionate release motions are heard by the original sentencing judge, who has the authority to reduce a person’s sentence if they can demonstrate, among other things, “extraordinary and compelling” reasons (ECRs) that warrant relief.

In November of 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and drastically expanded the ECR definition to include claims based on the types of harms that have been traditionally litigated under the Eighth Amendment. These changes represent a watershed reform to federal sentencing law and give district courts enormous discretion to reexamine federal sentences. Given the challenge of redressing harms under the Eighth Amendment, this Article argues that the expansion of compassionate release ECRs to encompass harmful conditions of confinement makes doctrinal sense and allows for a more appropriate remedy to harms done in prison than traditional civil remedies.

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