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Ann Intern Med. 2011 Jul 19;155(2):122-6. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-155-2-201107190-00348. Epub 2011 May 31.

Balancing punishment and compassion for seriously ill prisoners.

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University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics, and San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Francisco, California 94121, USA.


Compassionate release is a program that allows some eligible, seriously ill prisoners to die outside of prison before sentence completion. It became a matter of federal statute in 1984 and has been adopted by most U.S. prison jurisdictions. Incarceration is justified on 4 principles: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. Compassionate release derives from the theory that changes in health status may affect these principles and thus alter justification for incarceration and sentence completion. The medical profession is intricately involved in this process because eligibility for consideration for compassionate release is generally based on medical evidence. Many policy experts are calling for broader use of compassionate release because of many factors, such as an aging prison population, overcrowding, the increasing deaths in custody, and the soaring medical costs of the criminal justice system. Even so, the medical eligibility criteria of many compassionate-release guidelines--which often assume a definitive prognosis--are clinically flawed, and procedural barriers may further limit their rational application. We propose changes to address these flaws.

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