United States v. Gunn, No. 20-1959 (7th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Federal judges may release prisoners for compassionate reasons. Previously, that authority required a motion by the Bureau of Prisons. The 2018 First Step Act created a judicial power to grant compassionate release on a prisoner’s own request; the prisoner must first allow the Bureau to review the request and make a recommendation (or let 30 days pass in silence), 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). Gunn’s sentence for drug and firearm offenses runs into 2024. She sought release under section 3582(c)(1)(A), arguing that, because of her age (62) and medical condition, she faces extra risks should she contract COVID-19.
The district court denied relief, citing the requirement ”that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." The Sentencing Commission, which lacks a quorum, has not updated its policy statements to implement the Act. The most recent Guidelines Manual refers to a “motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons" and covers only prisoners who suffer from certain medical problems.
The Seventh Circuit vacated. The Manual lacks an applicable policy statement; any decision is “consistent with” a nonexistent policy. “Consistent with” differs from “authorized by.” While a judge acting on a prisoner’s motion may lack the Director's advice, contemplated by Manual, about whether an “extraordinary and compelling reason” exists, the First Step Act does not muzzle the Director. Until an amended statement is adopted, district judges must operate under the statutory criteria: ”extraordinary and compelling reasons.”