Reforms urged in compassionate releases

June 2, 2011 at 7:33 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO, June 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. system of freeing some terminally ill prisoners on grounds of compassionate release is flawed and difficult and needs reform, a study says.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, said the program is so encumbered with medical flaws and procedural barriers that many inmates potentially eligible for medical release are dying behind bars, a UCSF release reported Thursday.

"Current compassionate release guidelines are failing to identify seriously ill prisoners who no longer pose a threat to society, placing huge financial burdens on state budgets and contributing to the national crisis of prison overcrowding," lead author Brie Williams, a UCSF professor of medicine, said.

Compassionate release has been in effect in the United States since 1984, and most states have some form of early release program for eligible dying prisoners, but the laborious review process can take months or even years, the researchers said.

The result, the study authors say, is a "Catch 22."

If compassionate release is requested too late, eligible prisoners can die before their review process is complete.

If requested too early, terminally ill prisoners could live longer than expected "and perhaps pose a threat to society," the authors said.

The study emphasizes the need for a clear delineation between the role of physicians or other healthcare providers, who would assess medical eligibility, and prison officials, who would be responsible for balancing medical eligibility with public safety.

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