The First Step Act paves the way for a massive pro bono effort to represent sick, dying and elderly prisoners in court.
WASHINGTON – Thousands of sick, dying and elderly federal prisoners who are eligible for early release will now have access to free legal representation in court through the newly established Compassionate Release Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse, a collaborative pro bono effort between FAMM, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), is designed to match qualified prisoners with legal counsel should they need to fight a compassionate release denial or unanswered request in court.
“People who can barely make it out of their beds in the morning should not have to go into court alone against the largest law firm in the nation,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “Congress was clear that it wanted fundamental changes in compassionate release, yet we’ve seen prosecutors continue to fight requests from clearly deserving people, including individuals with terminal illnesses. It’s gratifying to know we will be able to help people in a tangible and meaningful way.”
The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse recruits, trains and provides resources to participating lawyers. The Clearinghouse’s design and implementation is being assisted by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP through its partner Steve Salky.
“Sick and dying prisoners for years were unjustly denied release on compassionate release grounds by the Bureau of Prisons,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “Now, prisoners will be assisted by dedicated and high-quality lawyers in seeking relief from the courts, evening the playing field, and allowing many of these prisoners to return home.”
The effort was made possible by the passage of the First Step Act, which addresses a well-documented, three-decades-long issue in which sick, elderly and dying prisoners have been routinely denied early release by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Until December 2018, there was no mechanism to challenge or appeal those decisions. Now, prisoners are allowed to appeal directly to a sentencing judge if their petitions are denied or unanswered.
Since the passage of the First Step Act, prisoners have been filing motions for release, and some have been challenged by federal prosecutors. The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse will make sure those prisoners have an attorney to fight for them in court.
“NACDL is proud to participate in this critically important effort,” said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer. “To make the promise of the First Step Act a reality for qualified sick, elderly and dying prisoners, the nation’s criminal defense bar is committed to recruiting pro bono attorneys to be champions for those in need. Additionally, NACDL’s First Step Implementation Task Force will aggregate resources to support attorneys who undertake this important work.”
The Clearinghouse started matching attorneys with prisoners in need in February 2019, and has matched more than 70 cases with pro bono attorneys. The Clearinghouse is actively recruiting additional attorneys and law firms to join in the effort.
FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safeguard taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe. Founded in 1991, FAMM is helping transform America’s criminal justice system by uniting the voices of impacted families and individuals.
Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combating and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL’s many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.
This press release was originally published June 19, 2019 on www.famm.org; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits. Copyright, FAMM 2019. To contact the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, prisoners or their family members can send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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