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RI federal court flooded with ‘compassionate release’ requests amid pandemic

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Roughly one-quarter of recent compassionate release requests made by federal inmates – or defendants in custody awaiting trial – have been granted by federal judges in Rhode Island, while half have been denied, according to a Target 12 analysis of court data.

Since February, when the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to take hold in the Unites States, 83 federal inmates whose cases were adjudicated in Rhode Island – along with defendants behind bars awaiting trial — have filed motions seeking compassionate release. Of those, 20 have been granted, three have been withdrawn, and 19 are still pending, while 41 of the motions were denied.

The requests represent a dramatic uptick from the same three-month period last year, when only five inmates sought the same relief and just one was granted.

The earliest release so far has been granted to Rocco DeSimone, 67, of Johnston, who was convicted on fraud charges in 2012. DeSimone was once described by the FBI as a “career con man” who prosecutors said bilked investors out of more than $6 million to fund a lavish lifestyle. His sentence was set to expire in November 2022.

DeSimone was already expected to be released to home confinement on June 30 by the Federal Bureau of Prisons due to the coronavirus, but U.S. District Judge William Smith pushed that up to Wednesday, citing DeSimone’s “age, medical condition, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to court documents.

Most of the releases granted by the courts have been for those awaiting trial. For those serving time, their sentences were generally shaved by just weeks or months before they were scheduled for release, according to the Target 12 review.

The compassionate release motions come after President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in 2018. The statute allows inmates to petition the court that sentenced them if the warden of the prison where they are housed denies their request.

Rhode Island U.S. District Chief Judge John McConnell said federal judges have to weigh the inmate’s health risks in light of coronavirus against public safety. He said they review prison records, including disciplinary charges, and release plans if they were to grant the motion. 

All of the requests are considered under an emergency motion.

“The whole thing is stressful,” McConnell told Target 12. “There is no doubt this pandemic and the decisions that come before the five judges in the District of Rhode Island cause stress because of the potential life-and-death decisions you are forced to make without full information in an emergency setting.”

“At times you feel like you’re playing God, and that is not a pleasant place for judges to be,” he added.

During a webinar examining prison conditions in the pandemic, Georgetown University law professor Kristin Henning said there have been about 4,700 federal inmates who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in roughly 29,000 in prisons across the country.

“We have also seen that between 415 and about 450 prisoners had died from COVID-related causes overall,” Henning said. “Those numbers are certainly likely to increase testing is more widespread.”

Georgetown professor Shon Hopwood – a former federal inmate himself – said during the presentation that federal judges have “stepped up” in their considerations of compassionate release requests.

“I think judges have realized that when [they] sentenced someone to three years, ‘I didn’t sentence him to three years and death,’” Hopwood said. “Hopefully that will allow people to reevaluate their sentencing practices in normal times.”

In addition to the First Step Act, U.S. Attorney General William Barr authorized wardens of federal prisons to allow inmates nearing the completion of their sentence to be released to home confinement if they are considered at-risk. The Federal Bureau of Prisons website states 3,311 inmates have been sent home since the directive was issued in early April.

Georgetown professor Marc Howard said prisons are particularly susceptible to outbreaks because of their inability to follow guidelines that are required outside prison walls.

“Everything that is recommended to all of us on the outside in terms of social distancing, in terms of hygiene, sanitation, protection is almost impossible on the inside,” Howard said. “You have the fact that hand sanitizer is considered contraband inside because it contains alcohol.”

“It’s really a tinder box,” he said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Hannah Dickison contributed to this report

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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