By Tess Cohen

The Second Circuit recently decided in United States v. Halvon that federal defendants can have their sentence reduced under the compassionate release statute even if the reduction means they are incarcerated for less time than required by mandatory minimum sentences. This is good news for people convicted of serious federal crimes.

The Halvon opinion means that all people incarcerated in federal prisons can now apply for compassionate release in courts in the Second Circuit, including all federal courts here in New York, even if they were sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence. The ruling opens up the possibility of a sentence reduction below the initial imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence for all individuals convicted of federal crimes, bringing hope to many for a change in lengthy sentences.

While the removal of this automatic barrier is heartening, those applying for relief still have difficult hurdles to overcome in order to achieve a reduced sentence. Compassionate release applications are brought under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1). Prior to the passage of the First Step Act, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could request a reduction of a sentence for an individual. However, in 2018 Congress changed the law and allowed for an incarcerated individual to directly request a reduction in sentence from the Court if they have exhausted administrative remedies in requesting support for an application from the warden of their pirson.

In order to grant a reduction, the court must find that there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to reduce an individual’s sentence. If the court determines that there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” then the Court must look at the sentencing factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) and determine what the appropriate sentence is in light of these additional considerations.

“Extraordinary and compelling reasons” is a high burden to meet, and even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, motions for compassionate release were routinely denied by Courts. Only 17.5% of requests for compassionate release were granted by federal judges across the country between January 2020 and June 2021.

The federal government should act to lower the threshold for re-sentencing, allowing for more routine recognition of rehabilitation and changed circumstances of individuals charged with lengthy sentences. Until they do, the road to compassionate release will remain a hard one. After all, even as the Second Circuit in Halvon determined that compassionate release was available to Mr. Halvon, it still upheld the lower court’s decision to deny Mr. Halvon a reduction of the ten year sentence he received for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

As always, ZMO Law PLLC is available to help those who wish to apply for compassionate release in New York federal courts.