The First Step Act (“Act”) is expected to produce badly needed reform of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme. The reform legislation offers promise to improve rehabilitation programs and living conditions in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
More importantly, however, is the goal of the Act to improve the lives of the families of federal inmates who often do the time with their loved ones in one way or another.
That is, if the federal government can get the program off the ground. Should the Act be implemented successfully, it may be recognized as President Trump’s signature legislative achievement.
What Does the First Step Act Do?
The Act creates changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of low-level federal prisoners. Qualifying inmates – mostly those who have committed low-level drug offenses – can earn goodtime credits that allow early release from prison with the opportunity to serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses.
The Bureau of Prisons and Congressional Budget Office estimated roughly 53,000 prisoners could be released early over the next 10 decade. Some experts believe that four to six thousand current federal inmates will immediately qualify for a supervised release program.
How Do Inmates Earn Goodtime Credits?
This process of earnin goodtime credits for early release will happen in three or four steps for most inmates: risk assessment, earn the credits, and either cash in your chips or petition to do so, and then release.
- The law requires the Bureau of Prisons to cooperate with an independent review commission to assess all federal prisoners for their risk of recidivism via the adoption of a risk assessment tool. Each inmate will be categorized as minimum, low, medium, or high risk as a base line for how earned goodtime credits may be redeemed.
- Prisoners then have the opportunity to earn time credits by completing various rehabilitative programs. For instance, the “good time” expansion offers an extra seven days off an inmate’s sentence for each year of good behavior.
- Minimum- and low-risk prisoners would be allowed to redeem for more time in a halfway house or home confinement at the end of their sentence.
- Medium- and high-risk prisoners will be required to petition for redemption of earned credits.
Redeeming credits must have the approval of the warden and a determination by the third-party review commission that the inmate is not likely to reoffend or become a public safety threat.
After cashing in, this community supervision (probation) will last three to five years as stipulated during original sentencing. Anyone violating the conditions of release will be immediately sent back to prison to serve out the rest of their sentence.
What Are the Current Mandatory Minimums?
Exact federal drug penalties relate to specific drug type, quantities involved, and whether they are classified as schedule I, II, III, IV, or V drugs.
However, cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, PCP, and their derivatives carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years for first-time offenders, 20 years for a second offense, and a life term with two or more priors.
Marijuana and hashish mandatory minimums range from 5-10 years depending on the factual circumstances. The fine limits for these drug crimes currently range from a couple thousand up to millions depending on the severity of the charges.
Now, under the new law, if someone has already served 25 years of a given sentence, then, they are potentially entitled to a shave 25 weeks off their time if they’ve earned the “good time” behavior credit for each year served. This single example can give you a good idea of the potential impact of this bill.
Are There Any Program Exclusions?
There are exclusions from program participation for some violent crimes – use of a firearm during a criminal act, for instance. Special mental health needs will also likely disqualify some during the law’s risk assessment process. It should also go without saying that the program is limited to federal prisoners. State facilities are not included.
Ultimately, this plan is estimated to cost taxpayers roughly $346 million over the next 10 years, in part because released prisoners will be eligible for federal benefits like health insurance markets and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
However, these figures do not take into account the savings derived from caring for fewer inmates overall, and from the potential to close expensive, un-needed federal prisons across the country. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates average annual costs for incarceration to be around $31,000 per inmate, per year.
These reductions may allow for closure of three or four federal facilities in that same 10-year period, and we can look to Texas state reforms implemented in 2007 as a point of reference with a reported $3 billion in estimated savings. Eight state prisons have been closed since.
Interested to learn more and see if you or your loved one will qualify? Get in touch with our office.