Compassionate Release for Medically Vulnerable Prisoners

barbed wire fence
June 12, 2020

By Jamie L. Freedman

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage throughout the United States, Associate Professor of Clinical Law Jessica K. Steinberg is playing a leading role in helping medically vulnerable DC prisoners gain early release. Professor Steinberg, who directs GW Law’s Prisoner & Reentry Clinic, was the featured speaker at a June 10 webinar for alumni hosted by the law school’s Alumni Relations team.

A nationally recognized expert on access to justice, court reform, parole, and offender reentry, Professor Steinberg said the pandemic has caused a “humanitarian crisis” in our prisons. “The virus is spreading like wildfire in our jails and our prisons, which are congregate living facilities with no opportunity to socially distance,” she said. “Prisoners don’t have access to hand sanitizer (due to their alcohol content) and the facilities are not disinfected on a regular basis. Moreover, prisoners lack access to adequate testing, she said, citing that the DC Jail administered just over 300 tests between March and May, and 185 tests came back positive.

Professor Steinberg jumped to action, drafting two pieces of legislation aimed at releasing older and health compromised DC prisoners from incarceration. “I wrote the legislation in collaboration with the Public Defender Service and the Council for Court Excellence, both local organizations in DC, and both were adopted by the DC Council in its COVID-19 emergency bill,” she said.

The first ordinance created a compassionate release program in DC that allows prisoners to petition the court for early release from prison if they are terminally ill, medically vulnerable to COVID-19, or if they are over 60 years old and have served at least 25 years in prison.

The second retroactively grants good time credits to older prisoners for complying with institutional rules and participating in prison programming. “We identified 1,000 DC prisoners who have been in prison for more than 20 years and never received good time credits because of harsh laws put into place in the 1990s during the war on crime,” Professor Steinberg explained. “The new law retroactively grants these older prisoners good time credits, which are used to deduct time off of a prisoner’s sentence.”

The compassionate release program is already yielding positive results. Sharing one early success story, Professor Steinberg recounted, “Prior to the enaction of the compassionate release law, my clinic students and colleague Maya Dimant filed a 200-page petition with the US Parole Commission detailing the urgency of releasing one of our clients due to the COVID-19 crisis, and the petition was rejected within hours.” The 69-year-old client had been in prison for 38 years for robbery, she explained, and was suffering from a number of health conditions, including chronic bronchitis, hypertension, and diabetes. “Under the preexisting set of laws in the District, our client was literally slated to die in prison.”

Shortly after the compassionate release law went into effect, she continued, “we were able to immediately pivot and petition a judge in DC Superior Court for his release. We filed a motion for compassionate release with the court and within four days we had a ruling in our client’s favor. The very next day, he walked out of prison a free man.”

The incredible speed of the case’s resolution provides Professor Steinberg with great hope. “I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of incarcerated clients over the years and I’ve never seen the criminal justice system move with such speed,” she said. “The biggest takeaway for me is: If we can do this during the COVID crisis, can we continue to take swift and decisive action in normal times to end mass incarceration where appropriate and release people who don’t need to be in prisons?”

“Another measure of hope that has been very energizing to me is that criminal justice advocates in DC have been absolutely extraordinary in the way that they’ve mobilized around the new compassionate release program,” Professor Steinberg said. “My clinic has partnered with a number of national and local organizations as well as local law firms to launch a DC compassionate release clearinghouse and together, in the past few weeks, we have put together training manuals and webinars and developed resources and sample petitions to help us recruit, train, and assign pro bono lawyers to these cases.”

As the webinar concluded, Professor Steinberg briefly turned to the subject of police reform. “I work on the back end of the criminal justice system with clients who often have been in the system and in prison for decades,” she said. “When we visit our clients in prison, hear their life stories, and then delve into their thousands of pages of paperwork, there is a pattern that often emerges. Many of our clients first had contact with the police when they were very young because police officers are often deployed to schools in poor neighborhoods. They enter a vicious cycle that they can’t recover from, and by the time I meet them in prison, a life has been lost to the system. Our entire criminal justice system needs to be reexamined and reimagined and I think this is the time to do it.”