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Why does the government want to keep elderly, nonviolent prisoners locked up on the taxpayer’s dime? That’s the question Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) would like the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an agency of the Department of Justice, to answer.

Actually, Shelby wants the BOP to submit a report answering a lot of questions about compassionate release, which is when prisoners who are expected to die in prison — whether because of advanced age, terminal illness, or both — are let out early to spend their last days with family and friends.

RELATED: How the overcriminalization of everything is endangering ordinary people


Compassionate release is, well, compassionate, but it’s also practical, because it alleviates prison overcrowding and lets taxpayers off the hook for the extra expenses that come with treating severe illness and making prison facilities accessible for the elderly. It’s also a needed, if deeply inadequate, remedy for prisoners serving excessive sentences thanks to unjust mandatory minimum laws, like the two prisoners whose stories Mike Riggs tells at Reason:

With the stroke of a pen, the BOP has the power to release men like Bruce Harrison, sentenced in 1994 to 50 years for delivering cocaine and marijuana at the behest of undercover federal agents. Now 65, Harrison suffers from a heart condition and has neuropathy in his feet that makes it difficult to walk. His official release date? 2037.

Then there are prisoners like Michael Hodge, who was sentenced in 2000 to 20 years for distributing marijuana while in possession of a firearm. Hodge developed pancreatic cancer while in prison and requested to be released so he could die in the company of family. That request was denied, and Hodge died behind bars in 2015, according to the Washington Post.

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Back in 2013, the BOP Office of Inspector General looked into the agency’s current use of this option. The investigation found “the existing BOP compassionate release program has been poorly managed and implemented inconsistently, likely resulting in eligible inmates not being considered for release and in terminally ill inmates dying before their requests were decided.”

The inspector general’s report urged the GOP to set “clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted,” develop a competent procedure for making the releases happen, and keep track of the resultant savings in tax dollars.

The BOP mostly did not do those things — thus Shelby’s questions.

The senator tacked his inquiry onto the appropriations bill currently making its way through Congress, and he gave the BOP a 60-day deadline from the date of the bill’s passage. The answers can’t come soon enough, because we shouldn’t be keeping old people who sold weed locked up until they die.

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