The First Step Act

From Elizabeth’s interview for the Masters of the Courtroom series on

What is the First Step Act?

In late 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law a criminal justice bill called the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safety Transition Every Person Act, or “First Step Act,” into law. The bipartisan bill, supported by lawmakers as varied as Senators Dick Durbin (D – IL) and Chuck Grassley (R – IA), institutes several criminal justice reforms to the federal prison system, including enhanced protection for female inmates, a new risk assessment system, expansions to good-time credit, and sentencing reforms for certain drug crimes.

In addition, the First Step Act allows federal inmates to earn additional credits towards spending the end of their sentence on home confinement or a halfway house and directs the Bureau of Prisons to make sure that lower-risk inmates spend the last six months of their sentence on home confinement whenever possible. As a result, you or your incarcerated loved one may be able to get out of federal prison earlier than expected under the provisions of the First Step Act. To learn more, you should not hesitate to call one of the experienced federal criminal defense lawyers at the Federal Criminal Law Center to schedule a consultation today.

Who is Impacted by the First Step Act?

As a federal prison reform bill,  the First Step Act only applies to people who are incarcerated in federal prison facilities, as well as federal criminal defendants. As of now, people serving criminal sentences in state prison will not receive any possible benefits under the Act. However, if the Act is shown to have as many benefits as anticipated, certain states might begin passing their own state-level laws based on the First Step Act.

Not only might the Act impact federal offenders, but it also aims to impact taxpayers. The law might lower costs for taxpayers by hopefully:

  • Reducing federal prison overcrowding by providing options other than mass incarceration
  • Lowering recidivism rates by providing holistic rehabilitation resources to offenders to help them transition back into society in a healthy and successful manner

People who are currently incarcerated due to federal convictions are not the only ones who should be aware of the First Step Act. Defendants facing criminal charges in federal court should also fully understand the implications of possible plea deals in light of the law. It is essential to have the help of a federal criminal defense lawyer who can evaluate your possible rights under the First Step Act and advise you accordingly.

Practical Application of the Act

The basis of the new law is to develop a risk and needs assessment system that applies to federal prisoners. As an offender enters the federal criminal justice system, the assessment system should designate them as having a high, medium, or low risk of committing another crime – or risk of recidivism. Based on each person’s specific risk level, they can participate in a variety of activities intended to reduce recidivism, which can include:

  • Trauma counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling and treatment
  • Vocational training
  • Academic courses

These are intended to help the offender spend time in productive activities, so they are as ready as possible to reenter society in a successful and lawful manner.

When a prisoner actively and successfully participates in such programs, they can earn time credits. Time credits can lead to early release from federal prison to finish a sentence, allowing the offender to be placed on supervised release or in a prerelease custody program. Credits might be accrued as follows:

  • Individuals with low recidivism risk can accrue time credits of 15 days for each 30-day period they successfully participate in their programs
  • Individuals with high or medium risk can accrue time credits of 10 days for each 30-day period they successfully participate in their programs

This means that if a low-risk prisoner participates in programs as prescribed for 12 months, they can earn time credits to be released 180 days – or six months – early.

There are other incentives that federal prisons can offer for participation, including:

  • Increased visitation privileges
  • Increased phone privileges
  • Transfers to housing units that are preferred
  • Increased spending limits at the commissary

All of these incentives and time credits are intended to encourage full participation in productive programs and activities that can increase the chance of success and decrease the chance of recidivism and a return to federal criminal court and/or prison.

The law also increases the number of days a prisoner can earn for good behavior. Specifically, good-time credits will be increased to 54 days per year of good behavior, increased from 47 days per year as previously awarded. The law allows for the increased credits to be applied retroactively, which can immediately decrease the remaining time for numerous federal prisoners, as well as provide for the immediate release for some individuals. All forms of time credit can help many federal prisoners, especially those who received harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Are All Federal Offenders Eligible for First Step Act Time Credits?

While the law is expected to benefit many of the federal prison population, the Act also specifies that not everyone is eligible to earn time credits. There are about 70 federal offenses that will disqualify someone from the First Step Act, including:

  • Terrorism
  • Murder
  • Child pornography
  • Sexual exploitation of a child
  • Some drug offenses
  • Fraud-related computer activity
  • Habitual domestic assault offenders

If a defendant is classified as ineligible for time credits due to a specific type of offense, this should be carefully considered when deciding whether to accept a plea agreement.

How the First Step Act Can Help You

The most obvious way the First Step Act can help a federal criminal defendant or offender is by shortening the time they are incarcerated. If you are already incarcerated and are eligible, you should be entitled to work to earn time credits. If you are denied this opportunity in violation of the law, you should have an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer advocating for your rights.

If you are facing federal charges, the prosecutor might try to offer a plea agreement with a specific term of imprisonment. While the term might seem long, it is important to remember that now, you might be able to work to earn more good-time credits as well as time credits for participating in First Step programs. This might significantly shorten your overall incarceration.

For example, imagine the offered sentence in a plea agreement is ten years in federal prison. In the first five years, the First Step Act might allow you to accrue the following:

  • 270 days of good-time credit (54 days for five years)
  • 900 days for participation in prescribed programs under the Act if you have a low risk of recidivism (15 days per months for 60 months)

If you accrue maximum credits during the first five years, that can come out to 1,170 days, which is 39 months. That means that the total term of incarceration would be less than seven years. While each situation is different, this is just one scenario that demonstrates why you should discuss how the First Step Act might impact you with your attorney if you are considering whether to accept a plea agreement or not.

Call Us Today to Schedule a Free Case Evaluation with a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

Federal sentencing laws have recently changed in favor of sentencing reform and prison reform, which can help many federal defendants and incarcerated offenders. You want the right lawyer on your side to ensure you receive the benefits of the law that you deserve.