During the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted daily life across the U.S., one especially vulnerable population is prisoners in the corrections system — who often live in settings where social distancing is not possible. For this reason, some of the most significant coronavirus outbreaks have been in detention facilities.
Shortly after the pandemic began last March, federal detainees began filing motions for compassionate release sentence reductions. A number of entities came together to develop a screening protocol for these cases: the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Defender’s Office, Probation Services, and the District of Minnesota Clerk’s office.
Lead attorney Andrew Mohring, an assistant federal defender, said the group had no precedents to guide it when it started putting together the protocol in early April. “It was a high-stakes, fast-moving situation, and there wasn’t a lot to go on. For us, the stakes were really high, in the context of a serious public health issue and a compelling moral imperative.”
One important piece of source material was the Centers for Disease Control’s list of health risk factors, which include age 65 and older, obesity, Diabetes I and sometimes Diabetes II. Certain heart conditions, cancers and the use of immuno-suppressive medications can also increase risk.
In order for a compassionate release motion to be granted and a sentence reduced, a judge must find “extraordinary and compelling (health-related) reasons,” Mohring said. Once that finding has been made, the court considers all of the basic sentencing considerations, such as the history and character of the offender, the seriousness of the offense and their performance in post-sentencing rehabilitation, and the nature of their post-release plan.
Nearly 500 cases had been screened and litigated by early January, he said. Dozens of at-risk prisoners had been granted early releases.
Mohring said a number of other federal judicial districts around the country have used the Minnesota protocol as a template. The Minnesota team included Mohring, along with attorneys Keala Ede and Katharine Buzicky. They were assisted by non-attorneys Haley Knopik, Lou Jean Gleason, Michael Vicklund, Darren Kerns, Michael Schmidt and Sharon Rose-Mitchell.
Read more about Minnesota Lawyer’s superb class of Attorneys of the Year for 2020 here.
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