Incarceration in this country has three main purposes: punishment of the criminal, deterrence of others, and protection of society. But at some point the last two purposes get stripped away and it really becomes about punishment for the convict, or retribution for the rest of us. That best explains why the federal Bureau of Prisons is so reluctant to consider "compassionate release" for incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners, even though Congress in its 1984 Sentencing Reform Act anticipated compassionate release and provided a mechanism for it.
But that legislation is also a big part of the problem, as described in a report issued last week by the groups Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. It took discretion away from judges with rigid sentencing guidelines. It was the beginning of a trend toward mandatory minimum sentences and longer maximum sentences at both the federal and state levels, with potential life terms easier to get and parole tougher or impossible to get. One result is a lot of elderly, sick and dying prisoners in the system.
Most states, including New York, have compassionate release programs; but, for fear of appearing "soft on crime," few are released. And the federal Bureau of Prisons, with 218,000 inmates, has recommended to judges just two dozen compassionate releases a year since 1992. In one case noted in the report, it refused to make such a recommendation even when the sentencing judge wrote a letter asking it to, and when the federal prosecutor had no objection.
This is expensive. It costs around $41,000 a year to hold such prisoners, compared to around $26,000 for the average prisoner, contributing to the federal Bureau of Prison's hefty $6 billion budget.
It's also unnecessary. The vast majority of prisoners who are incapacitated or terminally ill are middle age or older, a time when their impulse control is better and the likelihood of their committing another crime significantly less. This is reflected in the much-lower recidivism rate for older prisoners in general.
And those with serious medical issues, such as heart disease, advanced diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's, are even less likely to commit another crime if released, especially a violent one. In most cases, there would be minimal risk to public safety; and if a judge thought there were a real danger, he wouldn't have to release the prisoner.
One can argue that the criminal didn't show compassion for his victim. But it doesn't mean society can't be better and show compassion now.