Criminal Justice

A Terminally Ill, Wheelchair-Bound Inmate Applied for Compassionate Release. The Justice Department Argued He Wasn't Dying Fast Enough To Qualify.

The FIRST STEP Act gives dying inmates the opportunity to appeal to a judge for compassionate release. This case shows why.

|

When is a wheelchair-bound inmate with brain cancer not considered terminally ill? When a Justice Department lawyer is evaluating his medical record.

On Wednesday a judge ordered the release of federal inmate Steve Brittner, 55, under the new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, a criminal justice bill passed late last year. The judge ordered the release over the objections of federal prosecutors, who argued that Brittner, who is suffering from a malignant brain tumor, does not meet the "extraordinary and compelling" reasons to qualify for what's known as "compassionate release."

Brittner's case illustrates both the impact of the new law and the extraordinary hurdles terminally ill inmates and their families still face when trying to squeeze a small amount of mercy out of the federal government.

One provision of the FIRST STEP Act allows federal inmates to take their pleas to a judge if the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) rejects their petitions for compassionate release—a policy that is supposed to afford elderly and terminally ill inmates the opportunity to finish their lives among family and in relative peace.

As Reason reported last year, the petition process for compassionate release has long been arbitrary, inscrutable, and cruel. Justice Department records obtained last year by the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM show that since 2014, at least 81 federal inmates have died while waiting for the government to review their applications.

Brittner was sentenced in 2016 to 48 months in federal prison for distributing methamphetamines. In January 2018, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. By that November, an oncologist listed his prognosis as "poor" and discussed the possibility of ending treatment and beginning end-of-life hospice care. Brittner reported fatigue, weakness, and increasing memory loss. According to court filings, he is increasingly confined to a wheelchair.

Brittner filed two petitions for compassionate release to the BOP, and both times the BOP rejected them on the grounds that his life expectancy exceeded his release date.

A month later, Donald Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. Brittner then filed a motion to a federal judge to review his case under the new provisions. But the Justice Department opposed his motion on several grounds, including that his brain cancer, while deadly, was not spreading, and the median life expectancy for his condition is two to three years.

"Although defendant's medical records show that he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, those records do not indicate that the tumor has metastasized," the U.S. Attorney's Office of Montana wrote in a response to Brittner's motion. "Rather, the records show that the tumor has not recurred or progressed since surgery in March 2018."

The U.S. government was arguing, in essence, that Brittner wasn't dying fast enough to qualify for compassionate release.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen disagreed. She ruled that the Justice Department's interpretation of the FIRST STEP Act was seriously flawed. A metastatic brain tumor was only one of several examples of conditions that qualify as terminal illnesses, not part of an exclusive list. (She also noted that the overall survival time for those with Brittner's particular type of brain tumor is closer to one year.)

"It is clear from the nature of his disease and his worsening condition as documented above, that Brittner's prognosis is grim, his disease is terminal, and the length of his life can be measured most likely in weeks, as opposed to months," Christensen wrote in her order granting Brittner compassionate release.

"Finally, the Court is convinced that Brittner poses no safety risk to the community," Christensen continued. "Brittner is in an advanced stage of cancer and is wheelchair bound."

"This is a very telling case," says FAMM president Kevin Ring. "On one hand, the First Step Act's reforms to compassionate release worked as intended and this family prevailed. On the other hand, it blows my mind that the Justice Department and BOP still fought tooth and nail to keep a low-level drug offender who is dying of brain cancer and bound to a wheelchair away from his family for the final weeks of his life. They'll say they were just doing their jobs, but their job is to do justice."

NEXT: Did the Attorney General Commit a Crime by Lying to Congress?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. When is a wheelchair-bound inmate with brain cancer not considered terminally ill? When a Justice Department lawyer is evaluating his medical record.

    On Wednesday a judge ordered the release of federal inmate Steve Brittner, 55, under the new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, a criminal justice bill passed late last year.

    “We’re all dying, Steve…”

  2. What kind of sick sick disgusting horrible rat fuck person opposes something like this? For drugs? God I hate humanity!

    1. I don’t see the point of keeping him locked up. He’s not particularly dangerous, is crippled, and wasn’t going to serve that much longer anyway.

      If anything, his continued incarceration will just cost we the taxpayers more money. With no real benefit to anyone.

  3. Doesn’t that lawyer understand that the faster they get this dude out of prison the faster they can get his medical bills off the books?

    1. That might lower next year’s budget.

  4. >>>when trying to squeeze a small amount of mercy out of the federal government

    mercy not a reasonable expectation from an entire governmental department … individual judge w/individual brain however …

    1. That’s even rarer.

      1. yes but at least opportunity.

    2. How is it that anyone with a shred of intelligence or integrity can advocate that a bureaucrat should be involved in any activity that necessitates the occasion use of mercy, charity, or compassion? For the worst abuses of power, you could murder a judge or a dictator, but there is no way to snuff out a bureaucracy.

      If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
      George Orwell

      1. Actually, there is. Some modern weapons are specifically designed to affect bureaucracies and governments though they be hidden in steel-and-concrete bunkers deep underground.

  5. They’ll say they were just doing their jobs, but their job is to do justice.

    Wasn’t that a quote from Judgment at Nuremberg? And isn’t that the sound of ten thousand prosecutors laughing uproariously I hear?

    1. Drug prohibition itself is injustice.

    2. Their job is to do whatever the Republican prohibitionist and Democrat communist platforms says it is their job to do. If you don’t like the outcome, try voting libertarian. THAT changes laws.

  6. “but their job is to do justice.”

    Despite the fact that we call it the Department of Justice, as a legal matter, no, there official job is not “to do justice”.

    At no point in the processes of the Justice System does any of it’s official agents/government actors give even a tertiary thought to whether or not justice will be done by what they are doing.

    We call it the Justice system, but it’s really just a legal system.
    The people who carry out the day to day operations of the “justice system” universally think that all the thought that ever needs to be given to the idea of justice was given by the people who designed the rules and procedures, but in reality those people gave very little if any thought to notions of justice.

  7. ” . . . petition process for compassionate release has long been arbitrary, inscrutable, and cruel . . . ”
    You did say federal department of justice, didn’t you?

  8. What trimester?

  9. When I saw the headline I thought this guy must be a kid diddler or muderer or some kind of equivalent POS. Then I read the article. Drug offender. Figures.

    1. I would understand keeping him in if he were some violent child raper like PB, but as much as I detest tweekers, keeping this guy locked up is just pointless.

  10. “it blows my mind that the Justice Department and BOP still fought tooth and nail to keep a low-level drug offender who is dying of brain cancer and bound to a wheelchair away from his family for the final weeks of his life. They’ll say they were just doing their jobs, but their job is to do justice.”

    Then you need to come up with a system that will reward them for trying to do justice. At the moment what we have is a system that will PUNISH them if they make a mistake and a released prisoner commits a serious crime, and will not punish them for keeping imprisoned a person who should be released.

  11. Ah! I might have guessed. Another national prohibition law violator trying to peddle plant leaf products falls into the web of the New, Improved Jones-Stalker Act. If the guy had murdered a streetfull of people for Allah or a doctor for Christ he’d doubtless have been paroled or pardoned years ago and the whole matter expunged. Motives matter!

  12. Jail is the disincentive to commit crime. While I pity the poor meth dealer, but if you do the crime, you do the time.
    If he was an Illegal Alien (A Crimalien) he would have never been prosecuted in the first place, forget deported. His plea should have been: “All I ask is to be treated like an Illegal Alien” 😉

  13. Oh no! Not fatigue, weakness, and increasing memory loss! It’s like he’s turning 55! Quick let him out and give him lot’s of money!

    1. Oops, I just realized that on Reason anyone in jail for a drug offense is actually a saint. My bad, let him out, seriously.

  14. […] under the so-called compassionate release statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A).  This recent Reason article discussing the impact of this provision in a notable recent case from Montana.  The full title of […]

  15. […] under the so-called compassionate release statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A).  This recent Reason article discussing the impact of this provision in a notable recent case from Montana.  The full title of […]

  16. […] A Terminally Ill, Wheelchair-Bound Inmate Applied for Compassionate Release. The Justice Department … (May […]

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.