“Extraordinary and Compelling:” Two Non-Medical Grounds for Compassionate Release


Prospective clients frequently want to know whether they qualify for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582, the compassionate release statute. To qualify, a district court must make findings that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warrant a sentence reduction. Most of our clients think of COVID-19 and other medical issues as being the “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances that would merit this type of relief, but there are many different ways to present a compelling case for a reduction.

18 USC §3582(c)(1)(A) is the statute that gives courts the authority to reduce a sentence upon a finding of “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” but it doesn’t say what this means. Decades ago, Congress tasked the Sentencing Commission with developing policies to determine what circumstances count as sufficiently extraordinary and compelling. But these policies have not been updated since the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, a law that allows inmates to file their own motions for compassionate release. The guidelines still state that only the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can file a motion. And historically, the BOP focuses only on medical reasons for compassionate release.

Courts are divided on the extent to which they are permitted to define “extraordinary and compelling,” or whether they need to defer to the Sentencing Commission guidelines. In one Fourth Circuit case, U.S. v. McCoy, the Court held that district courts have broad discretion to consider any extraordinary and compelling reasons for release that a defendant might raise. But other courts have differed, for instance, in U.S. v. Bryant, the Eleventh Circuit denied a motion based on stacked §924(c) convictions, reasoning that Congress clearly made a choice that the Sentencing Commission would continue to establish what was “extraordinary and compelling” and not the courts.

What Courts are Doing with Non-Medical Compassionate Release Motions

A recent BOP report lists “reasons given by sentencing courts for granted motions” for fiscal year 2022 (October 2021 through March 2022). Table 14 provides a summary of the reasons, some of which are vague: 

  • COVID-19
  • Rehab
  • Stacked 924(c) convictions
  • “No reason provided”
  • Terminal illness
  • Extraordinary and compelling (not specified)
  • Family circumstances: care for minor child
  • Deteriorating physical or mental health due to aging
  • Age 65 and deteriorating health and served for 10 years
  • Enhanced drug penalties under 21 USC §851
  • Nearly meets requirements of USSG §1B1.13
  • Other mandatory minimum penalties/long sentence
  • Conviction/sentencing errors 
  • Family circumstances: care for spouse or registered partner (USSG §1B1.13) 
  • Mandatory nature of guidelines at sentencing 
  • Age 70 and served 30 years of sentence (18 U.S.C. §3559) 
  • BOP failure to provide treatment 
  • ACCA issues
  • Serious functional or cognitive impairment (USSG §1B1.13)
  • Other

Let’s examine two nonmedical reasons more closely:

Mandatory Life Sentences for Drug Offenders

The First Step Act changed some of the conventions for stacking drug convictions. For instance, the Act reduced the sentence for those with two prior convictions from life to a minimum of 25 years and changed the definition of a qualifying prior conviction to match the Armed Career Criminal Act’s “serious drug offense” requirement (which excludes mere possession charges). It also changed the mandatory minimum sentence for offenses with only one drug conviction.

Because of this, courts have been empowered to alter §851 sentences they were previously forced to impose. In other words: If a defendant would have served less time had they been charged today, they can move to reduce their sentence.

Stacked §924(c) Sentences 

Before the First Step Act, subsequent convictions under §924(c) required a 25-year mandatory consecutive sentence for each conviction. But with the First Step Act, Congress changed §924(c) to require that such a conviction must be deemed final before courts can tack on subsequent sentences. Those who faced these stacked convictions before the passage of the First Step Act may be eligible for sentence reductions based on their jurisdictions. The Act took stacking power away from the government, but it didn’t make the changes retroactive. Courts are thus split on whether to let these stacked convictions stand as a compelling enough reason to grant a motion for a sentence reduction. 

We’ve already discussed the Bryant case from the Eleventh Circuit, but in contrast, the District of Maryland in U.S. v. Graham granted a petition for compassionate release in a case where the defendant was charged with six armed robberies and faced an enhanced sentence with stacked 924(c) penalties: a mandatory minimum consecutive sentence of seven years for the first 924(c) and consecutive sentences of 25 years for each of the five additional 924(c)s. The defendant received a mandatory minimum sentence of 147 years in prison. He sought compassionate release, citing McCoy, and argued the stacked 924(c) convictions constituted an extraordinary and compelling reason for a reduction. His sentence was reduced to 57 years. 

Non-Medical Compassionate Release: Seeking Relief

Federal criminal defense lawyer Elizabeth Franklin-Best helps individuals file motions in federal district court to reduce sentences for extraordinary and compelling reasons, medical and non-medical. For more information about our practice or whether you might qualify for a sentence reduction, you may contact us at (803) 445-1333 or send us an email.