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The First Step Act: What Inmates Need to Know

Parole Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

The First Step Act: What Inmates Need to Know

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The First Step Act (FSA) of 2018 provides Federal inmates a pathway toward early release while attempting to reduce recidivism. The act was updated in 2022. 

As of 2021, Texas housed just under 15,000 Federal inmates, around 9% of all Federal inmates and about 11% of the prison population in Texas. The First Step Act applies only to them. Still, the hope is that states will begin to model similar legislation based on the outcomes of the Federal version.

Goals of the First Step Act

The FSA is a bipartisan effort to improve criminal justice outcomes, reduce the size of the Federal prison population, and create mechanisms to maintain public safety. The system achieves recidivism reduction through a risk and needs assessment system developed by the US Attorney General.

The system allows the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to assess potential recidivism risk and the environment into which the inmate is released that could contribute to recidivism.

The BOP uses the system to place prisoners into the appropriate recidivism-reducing programs and productive activities to reduce risk. The FSA also requires the BOP to help inmates apply for state and federal benefits as well as obtain identification, such as a Social Security card, driver’s license or other official photo identification, and a birth certificate.

The FSA also expands the Second Chance Act by requiring the BOP to develop guidance for wardens of prisons and community-based facilities to enter into recidivism-reducing partnerships with nonprofits and other private organizations, including faith-based and community-based entities that deliver recidivism reduction programming.

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What the First Step Act Means for Federal Prisoners

The FSA changed several sections of the United States Criminal Code, including good time credit, confinement location, reforms on restraints, solitary confinement, de-escalation, and provision of feminine supplies.

Also changed were the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenders to be applied retroactively. The Act expands the safety valve provision by allowing courts to sentence low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with minor criminal histories to less than the mandatory minimum sentence.

Changes to the Good Time Credit Provision

The First Step Act changed how inmates accrue good time credit by allowing them to earn credits based on the imposed sentence instead of the sentence served.

Federal inmates can earn up to 54 days of good time credit for every year of the imposed sentence. They can earn 10 to 15 days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence-based recidivism programs and productive activities.

Inmates can apply good time credits toward earlier placement in a pre-release custody program like a residential re-entry center (RRC) or home confinement (HC). Also, they can apply up to 12 months of credit toward supervised release (parole).

The ability to earn good time credit according to the imposed sentence is retroactive to December 21, 2018, depending on the Bureau of Prison’s eligibility determination from the risk assessment system.

Certain offenses make inmates ineligible for the FSA, including:

  • Violent offenses
  • Terrorism 
  • Espionage 
  • Human trafficking 
  • Sex crimes and sexual exploitation
  • Being a repeat felon in possession of a firearm
  • High-level drug offenses

Inmates not eligible for the FSA can earn other benefits for successfully completing recidivism reduction programming.

Changes in Confinement Location

The FSA amends the US Criminal Code to require the BOP to house inmates in facilities as close to their primary residence as possible and practicable. The goal is for inmates to be housed within 500 driving miles of where they live. 

Placement depends on the following:

  • Available bed space
  • The inmate’s security designation
  • Programmatic needs for the inmate
  • Inmate medical and mental health needs
  • The recommendation of the sentencing court
  • The inmate’s requests related to faith-based needs
  • Other security concerns

If the court sentences the inmate to a medium or high-security Federal Prison, there is little choice in location. Texas has one high-security Federal Prison, located in Beaumont, TX, near the Texas-Louisiana border, and two medium-security prisons, located in Beaumont, TX, and Three Rivers, TX, between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. 

For inmates in low, administrative, and minimum-security Federal prisons or private prisons holding Federal prisoners, most facilities are clustered around the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex and Houston, with a couple in Austin and San Antonio. Out of 15 Federal and private prisons in Texas, only five are located in West Texas, and none are in the panhandle.

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Correctional Reforms

The FSA prohibits using restraints on pregnant inmates in either BOP or US Marshal’s Service custody. The BOP must also provide tampons and sanitary napkins, which meet industry standards, for free in amounts that meet the healthcare need of each prisoner.

Correctional officers and other BOP employees must have access to training in de-escalation between officers or employees and inmates or civilians. The act also prohibits long-term solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in Federal custody.

Sentencing Reforms

The FSA changes mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenders and makes them retroactive, so current offenders who received longer sentences for possession of crack cocaine than if they had been sentenced for powder cocaine can receive reduced sentences. Inmates can petition the Federal court for a reduced sentence. 

The act modifies mandatory minimum sentences by increasing the threshold for prior convictions that trigger higher minimums for repeat offenders. It also reduces the 20-year mandatory minimum for a single qualifying prior conviction to 15 years. It reduces a life sentence mandatory minimum to 25 years for those who received a sentence of life under the previous mandatory minimums for two or more prior qualifying convictions.

Courts may now sentence low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with minor criminal histories to less than the mandatory minimum.

Implementing the reforms begins with the immediate release of inmates who have earned good time credits that exceed remaining days to serve, are less than 12 months from release, and have a supervised release term.

Hire an Attorney to Guide You

A criminal attorney experienced with the Federal courts and Bureau of Prisons is a crucial asset in your release. The changes wrought by the First Step Act have not been adequately communicated to prisoners so that they might be eligible for special programs or early release. 

You also need to know your rights as a prisoner or a juvenile held in Federal custody. 

Contact the Office of Greg Tsioros. We can help you understand the new law and fight for your rights.

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