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WASHINGTON (AP) – The federal panel that sets sentencing policy is weighing changes to a program that permits an early prison release for certain elderly and sick inmates.

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The Sentencing Commission held a hearing last month about the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release program, and is expected to take up the issue again next week.

The issue is important since federal prison officials have said inmates 50 and older are their fastest-growing demographic.

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Yet even though studies show that older prisoners are far less likely to re-offend after release, prison officials have struggled to define who should be considered.

The result is that inmates have sometimes died in prison even after they’ve been found to meet the criteria for release.

The Justice Department says the process does need consistency, but has urged caution.

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