Compassionate Release

Analysing the scope of compassionate release in the US in an attempt to define state structures and approaches to the release of the elderly and terminal from incarceration

Compassionate release LARGE


Dr Sarah Cooper

Research background

America has a large, aging, and medically compromised prison population. America currently imprisons approximately 2.3 million adults and expects one third of its prisoners to be aged fifty-five years or older by 2030. Compassionate release procedures typically allow prisoners to seek early release because of serious terminal, non-terminal, and/or age-related health issues, yet research suggests they are used sparingly. In 2017, Dr Sarah Cooper was awarded a Leverhulme Trust and British Academy Funding Grant to explore compassionate release across all 50 US states. The study was inspired by Dr Cooper’s collaboration with the Arizona Justice Project, a non-profit organisation providing pro bono legal services to indigent prisoners (including terminally ill prisoners) in Arizona with claims of innocence and/or manifest injustice, and was supported by the post-conviction clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Research aims 

The study aimed to generate a national picture of compassionate release across the US, focusing on state practices. To do this, the study aimed to identify all exisiting US state compassionate release procedures, and deconstruct them, including by label; eligibility and exclusion criteria; decision-making chain(s); release requirements; and applications and outcomes.

Research methods 

Using standard interrogation techniques and search terms generated by previous studies and wider literature, publicly available information about compassionate release procedures in each US state was systematically collated in a State Profile template. Key resources included: Westlaw International; LexisNexis; and webpages associated with state corrections, parole, executives and courts.


Dr Cooper reported a thematic analysis of the data collected in a provisional report – Compassionate Release in the US: A Blueprint for Discussion. The Blueprint explores six key areas (method and labelling; eligibility; exclusions; processes and decision-makers; release requirements; and cross-cultural competencies) and sets out a ten-point Blueprint to steer stakeholder discussions about reform. In 2018, two expert panels (in New York and Arizona) were convened to discuss The Blueprint. Panellists and participants included lawyers, a former state attorney general and BOEC member, scholars, the ACLU, prisoner policy groups, former prisoners, and prisoners’ families. The Arizona panel led to Dr Cooper being invited to draft a model medical parole statute and policy paper for Arizona, which she did as a Visiting Scholar at Arizona State University in 2019.  The model and paper are currently being discussed by stakeholders, and the ideas within were published in 2020 in the Arizona Law Journal for Social Justice in June, 2020.