Too Compassionate Release: Court Reverses Grant of Compassionate Release to Defendant Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

From 1989 until 1997, John Bass led a drug trafficking organization that distributed multiple kilograms of crack cocaine in Michigan and Ohio. In addition to drug trafficking, Bass also engaged in several violent crimes, including the murder of his half-brother in order to inherit his drug trafficking operation. A the jury convicted him of the drug trafficking charge and one count of murdering another person in the course of committing a drug trafficking crime. Bass's murder conviction made him eligible for the death penalty, but the jury ultimately sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

On June 28, 2020, Bass moved for compassionate release due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Citing his ethnicity (African-American) and his morbid obesity, Bass claimed he was at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms. In a supplemental filing, Bass also cited data showing that 20% of the inmate population at his facility (FCI McKean) had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Finally, he cited the United States Bureau of Prisons' Male Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimate Risk and Need ("Pattern") Risk Scoring Sheet, which he indicated he was a low-risk offender and less likely to reoffend upon his release.

On January 22, 2021, the District Court granted Bass's motion. Noting he possessed several COVID-19 comorbidities and that there was a high rate of infection at FCI McKean, the District Court held that Bass had shown "extraordinary and compelling" reasons for a sentence reduction. The Government subsequently petitioned the Sixth Circuit for an emergency order staying the District Court's order, which the Court granted.

With the stay in place, the Court examined the merits of the Government's appeal. In a published opinion, the Court reversed and remanded the District Court's order, noting it abused its discretion by misapplying the legal standard in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6) by focusing on sentencing discrepancies between Bass and his codefendants instead of national disparities between defendants with similar criminal histories convicted of similar conduct. 

The Court also faulted the District Court for comparing itself to a parole board in analyzing Bass's motion for compassionate release. In its opinion, the District Court's decision to compare the compassionate release proceedings to parole hearings "infected" the release proceedings with error. Unlike a parole hearing, the Court opined, the inmate's rehabilitation, by itself, did not present an "extraordinary or compelling" reason to grant compassionate release. 

The Court also held that the District Court abused its discretion by giving disproportionate weight to the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors. In particular, the Court found that the District Court gave too much weight to Bass's background, especially when considering his convictions for serious crimes -- crimes for which the Government sought the death penalty. In reaching this conclusion, the Court also found that the District Court gave too much weight to Bass's low PATTERN score, noting that the test potentially underrepresented his risk of recidivism. 

On remand, the Court encouraged the District Court to consider certain facts that had changed since Bass's original motion. For example, the Court noted that COVID-19 infection rates had decreased markedly at FCI McKean since he filed his motion, and inmates at the facility had access to the vaccine. Finally, the Court noted that Bass had been offered, and refused, the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Court's decision in Bass is one of many considering the discretion afforded district courts in considering motions for compassionate release during the COVID-19 pandemic. These cases will no doubt continue so long as the pandemic rages.


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Aaron Baghdadi said...

The fact that a motion for compassionate release has to be filed by the warden makes me wander if it was meant for cases where the prison doesn't want to pay for the defendant's medical care?

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