The First Step Act

The First Step Act

The First Step Act is a law enacted to support criminal justice reform. The Act became law when President Trump signed it on December 21, 2018 and it is a product of bi-partisan desire to cultivate better outcomes for criminal justice. It aims to reduce the population of the nation's federal prisons while also building strategies to keep the public safe.

Reducing Recidivism with the First Step Act

Under the First Step Act, the United States Attorney General is tasked with creating a risk and needs assessment tool that will be used by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). This tool will examine the recidivism risk and criminogenic needs of federal prisoners. Based on those risks and needs, prisoners will be placed in recidivism-reducing programs, activities, and housing assignments based not only on their specific needs according to the tool but also on how their risk levels compare with other prisoners.

The First Step Act Impacts Other Laws

In addition, the Act amends 18 U.S.C. § 4042(a) and requires the BOP to assist inmates in applying for federal and state benefits, and to acquire official forms of identification. Such forms include:

  • Social security card
  • Driver's license
  • Birth certificate

The First Step Act also adds an amendment to the Second Chance Act. This amendment provides direction for community-based facilities and prison wardens to partner with nonprofit and other private entities, such as those that are faith-based and community-based, to provide programming aimed at reducing the rate of recidivism.

Incentivizing Inmate Success

Under the First Step Act, it is possible for federal inmates to receive as many as 54 days of time credit for each year they were sentenced, instead of every year served of their sentence. For example, a prisoner sentenced to five years will receive up to 270 days, rather than an inmate who has only served two years of a sentence only receiving up to 108 days.

Inmates who are eligible to earn time credits are categorized by crimes, including:

  • Violent crimes
  • Crimes involving terrorism
  • Espionage
  • Human trafficking
  • Sex and sexual exploitation

Offenses that are not eligible for earning credits are high-level drug offenses or a repeat felony possession of a firearm. Ineligible inmates have the opportunity to earn other benefits as determined by the BOP, should they successfully finish recidivism reduction programming.

The First Step Act Addresses Prisoner Location

The First Step Act also requires the Bureau of Prisons to keep an inmate in a facility that is located as close as possible to the inmate’s home. To the extent feasible, they should be within 500 driving miles of their primary residence. The BOP decides where to place inmates based on a number of factors, including:

  • Bed space availability in the closest prisons
  • Security designation of the inmate
  • The inmate's programmatic needs
  • The inmate's mental and medical health needs
  • Requests made by the inmate related to faith-based needs
  • Recommendations of the sentencing court
  • Security concerns

Under certain circumstances, the BOP must transfer an inmate to a facility closer to their primary residence, even if they are currently in a prison that is within 500 driving miles of their home.

Additionally, there is a trial program that gives the BOP the authority to allow those elderly and terminally ill prisoners to serve the rest of their sentence in home confinement.

Inmates who complete the recidivism reduction programming and productive activities successfully are able to earn credits towards placement in home confinement or a residential reentry center.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Other provisions in the First Step Act specifically address criminal justice. The use of restraints on pregnant inmates in the Bureau of Prisons or in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service is prohibited. The BOP must provide access to industry-standard tampons and sanitary napkins at no charge and in the needed quantity according to an individual inmate’s healthcare needs.

The act also requires the BOP to provide correctional officers and other prison employees with training on de-escalating situations that involve a BOP corrections officer or employee and a civilian or an inmate. They should be trained to identify and respond appropriately to situations involving individuals with mental illness or cognitive defects. These requirements are now integrated into the BOP staff training.

Although the Bureau of Prisons does not house juvenile delinquents, it contracts with other facilities to do so. The First Step Act prohibits these facilities from subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement.

The First Step Act Addresses Sentencing Reform

Mandatory Minimums for Particular Drug Crimes

The mandatory minimum sentence for certain drug traffickers with previous convictions is reduced from 20 years to 15 years under the Act, and others reduced from a life sentence to a 25-year mandatory minimum.

Making the First Step Act Retroactive

Through the First Step Act, the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are retroactive. There may be an inmate, for example, convicted of cocaine possession before the Act was in place and is serving a longer sentence than they would have received had they been sentenced under the Act. This inmate can petition the federal court to have their current sentences reduced to the guidelines as promulgated under the Act.

Expanding the Safety Valve

The “Safety Valve” provision gives courts the authority to sentence low-level, non-violent drug offenders with only minor criminal histories to a sentence less than the required mandatory minimum for their offense. The First Step Act strengthens the abilities of the safety valve provision.

How Is First Step Act Adherence Monitored?

The Federal Bureau of Prisons must submit multiple reports to the federal government for review. These reports ensure the Act is being implemented according to the law and provides an examination of the new risk and needs assessment tool’s results. As per the Act, the U.S. Attorney General reviews the reports with an Independent Review Committee.

Questions about the First Step Act? Call an Experienced Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Since the First Step Act makes changes across many areas of federal criminal justice laws, it is best to speak to a knowledgeable Philadelphia criminal defense attorney to determine how your sentence might be affected. You might not be receiving the benefits under the First Step Act you rightfully deserve.

If you or a loved one is serving a federal sentence or facing criminal charges in federal court, contact an experienced Philadelphia federal criminal defense lawyer to protect your legal rights. Attorney Lauren A. Wimmer has experience dealing with federal courts in multiple jurisdictions and has in depth knowledge of the First Step Act. Call Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at 215-712-1212 or use our convenient and confidential online contact form. Your initial consultation is free, and we are available 24/7 to answer your call.

Categories: Criminal Defense