Where is it hardest to gain ‘compassionate release’ in America? Georgia.
Kenneth Moore, who is serving a 14-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine in Glynn County, requested early release in June because of his ailing health.
Moore, 51, has prostate cancer, chronic kidney disease and hypertension, according to court documents. This makes him more susceptible to getting Covid and becoming severely ill or dying, he claims. Moore asked a federal judge to let him out on “compassionate release,” a legal request expanded in 2018 as part of a law to reduce mass incarceration. The law permits a prisoner’s release under “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. Prisoners across America have requested it in droves since the Covid pandemic erupted in 2020.
On July 18, Judge Lisa G. Wood, of the Southern District of Georgia, denied Moore’s request. She cited the fact that Moore was vaccinated and his prostate cancer appeared under control. She also added that releasing him would not promote respect for the law.
Wood’s ruling on compassionate release is part of a trend in Georgia.
Coastal Georgia’s federal district granted only 2.2% of compassionate release requests it received between October 2019 to March 2022, according to new sentencing data released this month.
That is the second lowest percentage of any state’s district in the country. The district received 272 motions and granted 6 of them, the U.S. Sentencing Commission data shows.
The lowest percentage in the U.S. came from the Middle District of Georgia, which granted 1.7% of requests, or just 4 of 238 it received.
Georgia had some of the biggest discrepancies between districts within a state. While Georgia’s Southern District — which includes Brunswick, Savannah, and Statesboro — denied 97.8% of compassionate release motions it received, the Northern District — which includes Atlanta — granted 46% of them, 80 out of 174 the district received.
Large discrepancies also exist between Georgia and other states too: Massachusetts granted 44.8% of motions and Oregon granted 59.2%.
Disparities in release
Before the First Step Act was passed during the Trump administration, only the federal agency that runs prisons could make motions for compassionate release for sick, incarcerated individuals, which didn’t happen very often. After the Act’s passage, the incarcerated could ask the federal courts directly.
In the first full year after the law passed, only 96 federal prisoners had requested compassionate release. But by the second half of 2020, during the onslaught of Covid, thousands of requests were being filed in federal court every month.
The decision to let out a prisoner on “compassionate release” comes down to individual judges. Judges have to consider the seriousness of a person’s crime, deterrence, respect for the law, to protect the public from further crime and the “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for release, according to federal law.
A 2021 report from CNN found outdated sentencing guidelines on compassionate release allowed for wide disparities on which offenders get released between states and districts.
The politics of judges could also effect outcomes, according to legal researchers.
A paper in The Georgetown Law Journal analyzed more than 6,000 compassionate release decisions during the first ten months of the pandemic.
“District judges appointed by Democrats have been more than twice as likely to grant compassionate release during the COVID-19 pandemic as their Republican counterparts,” the paper found.
This is but one lens to view the decisions, the paper cautions. It concludes that factors such as whether a prisoner files the request via a lawyer, the location of the court and timing all influence judicial rulings. Even though Democrat-appointed judges approved more motions, the total number for both parties was still low, the paper states. Less than 20% of requests were approved during this period of the pandemic.
Judge Wood, who denied Moore’s request for release and made headlines in the past year for presiding over the Ahmaud Arbery federal hate crimes case, was appointed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, in 2006.
Moore pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 2018 and was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. He was “ultimately held responsible for a minimum of 144 kilograms of cocaine,” Judge Wood wrote in her July order.
Moore filed his compassionate release request pro se, or without a lawyer. Moore had a court-appointed attorney during his trial. The Southern District of Georgia is one of three federal court districts in the country without a public defender’s office.
Judge Wood wrote she was unswayed by arguments about his medical condition, increasing age and fears of Covid after finding he was vaccinated.
“General concerns regarding COVID-19 alone do not qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release,” Woods wrote.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.