What Is the First Step Act, and Who Is Qualified to Benefit from It?
The First Step Act (FSA), enacted in 2018, represents a major federal criminal justice system reform. Previously known as the much-harder-to-say "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act," the FSA aims to reduce recidivism and provide rehabilitative programming for federal prisoners.
Simply put, the First Step Act allows federal inmates to earn additional time off their sentences by participating in specific in-prison programs. These earned time credits can amount to a significant amount of additional good conduct time.
In other words, the FSA permits eligible inmates to earn more time off their sentence for completing approved evidence-based recidivism reduction programs. For example, for every 30 days of qualifying activities, inmates can earn ten days off their sentence. After two six-month risk and needs assessment review periods, it will increase to 15 days off per 30 days of programming activities.
The First Step Act earned time credits is a way for federal inmates to secure an early release from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump on December 21, 2018, and signaled positive changes to the federal prison system, mainly the FSA-earned time credits.
These credits are similar to good conduct time, but inmates can add to it rather than receiving the prorated sentence reduction for good conduct. These time credits will speed up the inmate's projected release date from prison.
It was driven by a bipartisan consensus that the existing criminal justice system was inefficient and inhumane, with an overemphasis on punitive measures rather than rehabilitative ones. Thanks to implementing the FSA, you may have the opportunity to reduce your prison time significantly if you've been imprisoned for a federal crime.
The most significant aspect of the FSA is its focus on giving incarcerated people a chance at early release through earned credit programs. In practical terms, certain individuals with low-risk profiles and good behavior can qualify for sentence reductions. However, the FSA also addresses many other aspects of the criminal justice system, including sentencing reform, compassionate release, and improved prison conditions.
What Are the General Benefits of the First Step Act?
One of the main benefits of the First Step Act is its focus on rehabilitation. The Act encourages inmates to participate in programs that reduce their likelihood of re-offense upon release.
These include job training, education, and substance abuse treatment programs. Successful participation can lead to earning credits, which can be used to reduce one's time in prison or gain an earlier transfer to pre-release custody, such as home confinement.
The Act also moderates specific mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges greater discretion during the sentencing hearing. This includes limiting the application of mandatory minimum sentences to serious drug offenses.
Furthermore, the First Step Act expands compassionate release for terminally ill prisoners and ensures that prisoners are housed within 500 driving miles of their families, thus facilitating familial support during incarceration.
Eligible federal inmates may earn additional time credits by participating in Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Programs and productive activities.
What are Earned Time Credits?
One of the most notable reforms of the FSA, and one that a significant number of federal prisoners can access, is the implementation of earned time credits.
The principle behind these credits is straightforward: inmates who commit to personal growth and reform should be rewarded with the possibility of an earlier release. Earned time credits are awarded for participation in certain approved Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction programs.
For every 30 days of successful program participation, inmates can earn up to 10 to 15 days off their sentence, depending on their assessed risk level. Examples of approved programs may include, but are not limited to:
- Vocational Training Programs: These initiatives provide inmates with job skills that can help them find employment after release, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.
- Substance Abuse Treatment: Given the high correlation between substance abuse and crime, these programs aim to treat addiction and prevent relapse, thereby reducing recidivism.
- Education Programs: Providing inmates with educational opportunities, including high school diplomas, GEDs, or even college courses, can significantly improve their chances of successful reintegration into society and lower the risk of reoffending.
- Anger Management Programs: These programs teach inmates how to control their anger and respond to stressors in a healthy way, lowering the potential for violent reoffending.
- Family-based Programs: Strengthening family ties and improving communication can provide a strong support network for released prisoners, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.
- Reentry Programs: These programs assist with transitioning from prison to community life, providing resources like housing assistance, job placement, and counseling.
- Restorative Justice Programs: These programs aim to repair the harm caused by crime through reconciliation with victims and the community, promoting empathy and understanding, which can reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Expansion of Good Time Credits
In addition to the earned time credits above, the FSA also increased the number of days per year an inmate can reduce their sentence for good behavior, known as good time credits. Before the FSA was implemented, good behavior could earn inmates up to 47 days off their sentence per year of their imposed sentence.
With the passage of the FSA, the number of days per year has been increased to 54. To qualify for the additional First Step Act time credits, federal inmates must meet the following criteria:
- Be convicted of a federal offense under the under the U.S. Code;
- Not be convicted of a disqualifying offense;
- Participate in qualifying recidivism reduction programs as defined by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and
- Be deemed minimum or low-risk per the risk assessment system.
More than half of federal inmates do not qualify for additional time credits. The First Step Act earned time credits program is primarily available to inmates convicted of non-violent offenses.
Who Qualifies for Earned Time Credits?
To determine eligibility for earned time credits, the Federal Bureau of Prisons utilizes the PATTERN Risk Assessment Tool to assess an inmate's recidivism risk (i.e., the likelihood of repeat offenses). Inmates are generally qualified to earn time credits if they:
- Have a minimum or low PATTERN score; and
- Have not been convicted of a disqualifying offense.
Disqualifying offenses include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Human trafficking,
- Habitual domestic violence,
- Sex crimes,
- Terrorism, and
- other violent crimes.
Inmates with a medium to high PATTERN score are generally not eligible to reduce their time. However, the warden can make exceptions for higher-risk offenders if they determine the inmate poses no threat to the community, has a low risk of reoffending, and has attempted to lower their PATTERN score by participating in eligible programs.
It's important to note that the First Step Act applies only to federal prisoners, who constitute approximately 10% of the total U.S. prison population. State prisoners are not affected by this Act.
What Types of Programs Can Inmates Participate in for Time Credits?
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) divides applicable First Step Act programs into Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Programs (EBBR) and Productive Activities.
Both allow inmates to earn additional time off their sentences. The BOP has a First Step Act Programs Guide, which presents all qualifying programs and lists which institutions offer.
After a needs assessment, the inmate should have been directly assigned to a program to start earning credits. Faith-based classes and programs can also be taken as the BOP approves them. Some of the courses and programs that will qualify for additional time credits include the following:
- Anger Management;
- Basic Cognitive Skills;
- Emotional Self-Regulation;
- Federal Prison Industries;
- General Educational Development Test (GED);
- Mental Health Step-Down Program;
- National Parenting from Prison Program;
- Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program;
- Residential Drug Abuse Treatment;
- Sex Offender Treatment Program;
- Social Skills Training;
- Threshold Program.
First Step Act earned time credits can only be earned while in BOP custody. The credits can be applied as direct prison time credits or allow prisoners to be released into halfway houses, home confinement, or supervised release sooner.
Supervised release is limited to the final year of an inmate's sentence, but they can still use their credits to transfer to pre-release custody earlier. Notably, before an early release or transfer to a pre-lease facility, inmates must have earned time credits equal to the time left in their sentence and show a reduced recidivism risk.
Our federal criminal defense lawyers can help you determine if you or a family member will qualify for the First Step Act time credits. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.