A section of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 allows the sentence of a federal inmate to be reduced by a judge for "compelling reasons." This section has been used to justify early release of inmates who are terminally ill - typically within six to twelve months of the end of life.
Unlike state prison systems, the federal system does not allow for early release other than time earned through good behavior. But, the Bureau of Prisons (B.O.P.) says its prisons are overcrowded and its annual budget, including medical expenses for inmates, is stretched thin enough that Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz has recommended that prisons expand access to the early release for medical reasons.
The B.O.P. released new standards for early release that would allow an inmate with a terminal illness who has only 18 months or less left to live to seek early release, in accordance with the Inspector Generals' recommendation. Severely disabled inmates who are confined to their bed or a chair for at least half of the hours in a day are also eligible for early release regardless of whether they have a terminal illness.
The B.O.P. plans to improve how it gets the message about the early release program out to eligible inmates as well as to improve tracking and processing of applicable cases. Thirteen percent of inmates who had requested compassionate release due to a terminal medical condition died before the request for release was processed.
The Inspector General cited a low recidivism rate - the rate at which a released inmate reoffends - among those released early on compassionate release as an argument in favor of reducing the sentences of these members of the federal prison population.
Source: The New York Times, "More Releases of Ailing Prisoners Are Urged," May 1, 2013