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The First Step Act: What You Need To Know

What is the First Step Act?

The First Step Act, formally known as the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, signed into law on December 21, 2018, is a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that aims to reduce the federal prison population and improve prison conditions. It introduces a risk and needs assessment system to evaluate federal inmates, incentivizes participation in recidivism reduction programs, and allows eligible inmates to earn time credits for early release.

What is the impact of the First Step Act?

Before the First Step Act was enacted, federal inmates could typically earn up to 54 days off their sentence annually for good behavior, a benefit known as Good Conduct Credit. These days were granted at the start of the sentence but could be revoked for certain disciplinary violations.

In December 2018, the First Step Act became law, allowing inmates to reduce their prison terms and spend more time in home confinement.

Under the First Step Act, eligible inmates can earn up to 365 days off their sentence by engaging in programs designed to lower reoffense rates and participating in constructive activities like work or religious practices. These credits, awarded monthly, are capped at 15 days off per month. However, 68 specific crimes are ineligible for First Step Act credits.

In addition to the potential year off, inmates can continue accumulating First Step Act credits for home confinement without any limit. This is particularly beneficial for those with longer sentences, who can accrue more credits.

Moreover, under the Second Chance Act, inmates can qualify for up to 10% of their sentence, with a maximum of 180 days, to be served in home confinement, separate from the home confinement days earned under the First Step Act.

Also separately, the Bureau of Prisons offers a Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) for inmates with documented alcohol or drug issues, allowing them to reduce their sentence by up to a year. Eligibility requires self-disclosure of the substance issue during the pre-sentence interview with U.S. Probation, as noted in the presentence report.

Who is Eligible for the First Step Act

For First Step Act credit eligibility, inmates must have a minimum or low PATTERN score, which assesses the risk of recidivism and violence. However, all inmates can earn First Step Act credits for pre-release custody (halfway house or home confinement), as long as their offense is not one of the aforementioned 68 excluded crimes, such as sex offenses and terrorism.

donald trump first step act
Bipartisan Effort in Creating the First Step Act

What Does the First Step Act Do?

The First Step Act focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment and reforms some of the nation’s harshest sentencing policies. It also gives more protection to women inmates and prepares inmates for life after prison. Here are some of the major provisions of the First Step Act:

  • Rewards Good Behavior. A major hallmark of The First Step Act is to initiate time credits for good behavior and participation in vocational and rehabilitative programs. In essence, prisoners will be able to participate in programs offered by the prison in order to reduce their incarceration time. In an effort to bolster these programs, the Act accounts for increased funding for vocational and rehabilitative programs — $50 million per year over the next five years — which will create greater access to education for incarcerated people seeking to prepare for success following their release.
  • Allows Sentences to Be Served Outside of Prison. The statute allows for certain prisoners to serve the last portion (not to exceed to 12 months) of their sentence at home. In some instances, inmates facing a terminal illness may also qualify for release to a palliative care facility as an alternative to prison.
  • Shortens Minimum Sentences for Non-Violent Drug Offense. Perhaps the largest change promulgated by the First Step Act is the change in sentencing structures. The Act eradicates an automatic life sentence for a person convicted of their third felony drug offense. Now, in lieu of a mandatory life sentence, a person with a third “felony drug offense” or “serious violent felony” will have a minimum 25-year sentence. In conjunction with this change, the First Step Act also changes the minimum sentence of a second felony drug conviction. As opposed to the previous regime, where a person who was convicted on their second felony drug offense would receive a minimum 20-year sentence, the First Step Act reduces that number to 15 years. This reduction also applies to those with a “felony drug offense” or “serious violent felony.”
  • Eliminates stacked sentences for a first-time firearm violation.The First Step Act reduces the prosecutor’s ability to stack charges for anyone being charged under U.S.C. § 924(c) with their first criminal proceeding for a firearm violation. Historically, a prosecutor could stack charges for any crime where a firearm was involved and the defendant would be subject to more jail time. Now the defendant cannot receive a stacked charge unless they have previously been charged under § 924(c).
  • Eases Mandatory Minimum Sentences. The First Step Act has also broadened the scope of defendants who may be eligible to receive a sentence below the statutory minimum. This is known as a “safety valve” where the judge has discretion to give a sentence below the statutory minimum to an individual who qualifies.
  • Reduces the Sentencing Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine. While the sentencing changes mentioned above apply going forward, the First Step Act made a substantive change to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which will have retroactive effects. The Fair Sentencing act of 2010 reduced the mandatory sentencing requirement for people in possession of crack cocaine. However, the law did not apply retroactively at the time of its enactment. The First Step Act allows the First Sentencing Act to be applied retroactively. This means many people who are currently in prison for possession of crack cocaine may use this portion of the Act to reduce their sentence or petition for their release.
  • Bans Shackling of Pregnant Females. While women incarcerated in the federal system make up only 7 percent of the total population, the First Step Act also aims to keep their needs in mind. Prior to the First Step Act, pregnant female inmates were required to be shackled before, during, and after giving birth. Now, with a few exceptions, pregnant female inmates will not be restrained from the date their pregnancy is confirmed until postpartum recovery has concluded. The First Step Act also mandates that feminine hygiene products be provided to inmates.
  • Keeps Inmates Close to HomeThe First Step Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to house federal prisoners within 500 miles of their family—as long as a facility is available to meet their level of security or medical needs. This ensures that the family members of federal prisoners will have greater access to visit the members of their family who are incarcerated and removes any geographic obstacles that may exist.
Both parties have recognized the need for federal prison reform, but much work remains.
Both parties have recognized the need for federal prison reform, but much work remains.

What are good time credits?

Good time credit is awarded for what is legally referred to as “exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations,” which essentially means good behavior. This credit serves to decrease the amount of time an inmate actually spends in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), often referred to as “good conduct time.” The regulations surrounding good time credit are outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b).

What are Earned Time Credits?

One significant aspect of the First Step Act is the introduction of earned time credits, which can benefit a large number of federal inmates.

The concept of these credits is straightforward: prisoners who engage in personal development and rehabilitation should be given the chance to shorten their sentences. Earned time credits are granted for participation in specific authorized programs that reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Based on their risk assessment, inmates can earn between 10 to 15 days off their sentence for every 30 days of successful participation in these programs. Examples of such programs include:

  • Job Training Programs: These initiatives equip inmates with skills that can aid in securing employment post-release, thereby decreasing the chances of reoffending.
  • Substance Abuse Programs: With a strong link between drug abuse and criminal activity, these programs focus on addressing addiction issues and preventing relapse, which can lead to a reduction in recidivism.
  • Educational Programs: Offering educational opportunities, such as obtaining high school diplomas, GEDs, or college courses, can significantly enhance inmates’ prospects of reintegrating into society and reduce the risk of reoffending.
  • Anger Management Programs: Teaching inmates to manage their anger and constructively cope with stress can reduce the likelihood of violent reoffending.
  • Family-based Programs: Enhancing family relationships and communication can offer a solid support system for inmates upon release, decreasing the chances of reoffending.
  • Reentry Programs: These initiatives support the transition from incarceration to community life by providing resources like housing assistance, job placement, and counseling services.
  • Restorative Justice Programs: By fostering reconciliation with victims and the community, these programs aim to address the impact of crime, promoting empathy and understanding, which can lead to a reduction in recidivism.
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