News Release

District of Columbia Compassionate Release Project Frees Over a Dozen and Continues Important Work

Washington, DC (Dec. 22, 2020) – The District of Columbia Compassionate Release Project is a coalition of advocates including NACDL, the Public Defender Service for D.C., Wiley Rein, Akin Gump, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Second Look Project, and George Washington University Law School. The Project, which was launched in April 2020, assists D.C. prisoners who are vulnerable to COVID-19 seek release under a D.C. statute. The project places cases for pro bono assistance with private counsel and provides training and support to the volunteer lawyers. As of today, the project has successfully secured the release of 13 individuals, including 6 individuals who were serving life sentences.

The District of Columbia, as part of its emergency response to COVID-19, amended its criminal law to permit incarcerated persons serving sentences under the D.C. Code to seek compassionate release if they meet certain criteria, including conditions that place them at high risk if they contract COVID-19.

In addition to the secured releases, the District of Columbia Compassionate Release Project has:

  • Recruited over 226 attorneys to take cases pro bono from 108 different organizations,
  • Received 746 requests for assistance,
  • Submitted 34 motions for compassionate release, and
  • Of those motions decided, 70% were granted.

"As is often the case, incarcerated individuals have to bear the weight of numerous systematic failures. The D.C. Compassionate Release Project addresses those failures by prioritizing the health and lives of some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society," said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer. "As the pandemic rages on, it is more important than ever to fight for the lives of the individuals in our nation’s prisons. Thanks to the dedication and skill of a cadre of volunteers, we will continue this fight."

"The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the cruelty and injustice of mass incarceration and its impact on communities of color. Far too many people remain incarcerated in this crisis that could be home increasing public health and consistent with public safety," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. "We are grateful for the response of the legal community to this crisis and its work on compassionate release that has helped thousands of prisoners and their loved ones."

"Prisons and jails in the United States are particularly susceptible to the spread of disease, and as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, prisoners’ lives must be prioritized," said D.C. Compassionate Release Project Resource Counsel John Albanes. "It is great to see how many volunteer attorneys have taken on this vitally important work thus far in order to save lives. I hope and urge more lawyers to join in the effort as our work continues into the New Year."

For more information and to volunteer for the District of Columbia Compassionate Release Project, please visit

Save the date: Join the Project Thursday, January 14, to celebrate the lives saved and the incredible advocacy of the D.C. Compassionate Release Project volunteers. The attorneys will be sharing the impact the work has had on them as well as their clients.

Sign up to receive updates about the celebration here:

Support for this project is provided by grants from the Greater Washington Community Foundation and Arnold Ventures LLC.


Kate Holden, NACDL Public Affairs and Communications Associate, (202) 465-7624 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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