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What the FIRST STEP ACT Means for US Federal Prison System Inmates

The FIRST STEP act has passed, and President Donald Trump signed it into law on December 27, 2018.  We’re excited at the prospects this means for the reform of the US federal prison system. This act is the biggest piece of legislation since the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the first piece of legislation that allows federal inmates to reduce their time in prison since the Second Chance Act of 2008. The Second Chance Act was signed in April of 2008 and allows eligible inmates to be released from prison up to 12 months early.

The US federal prison system has been in desperate need of reform. It currently lacks the programs necessary to provide any chance for federal inmates to change, adapt, and start a new life for themselves.  This problem is made worse by the overcrowded prisons and disproportionate sentencing. The system leaves itself more like a revolving door than a reform program. The First Step Act will hopefully change this.

This act is a massive piece of legislative work and is the first step to transform our federal prisons into prisons which offer effective rehabilitative programming. Through these programs, we can hope to build bridges to make it easier for individuals to return to society from incarceration without obstacles and roadblocks. Inmates can now return to society and be productive and not be derailed in their efforts as is currently the case.

Reducing Recidivism & Encouraging Healthy Rehabilitation

With the FIRST STEP ACT, the Department of Justice will create a Post-Sentencing Risk and Needs Assessment System. This will be implemented in all federal prison facilities. Each prisoner will be evaluated annually for their needs and risk factors. The Lower-risk prisoners can be eligible to serve out the final days of their sentences in halfway houses, or home confinement.

This act will also require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to improve prison programs that are available. Participation in programs that reduce recidivism will qualify for earned-time credits creating more of an incentive for participation in these programs. Prisoners can use these earned-time credits and cash them in for time on home confinement or a halfway house. This allows inmates to leave prison sooner and also be productive citizens. These programs can provide the life-changing experience that some prisoners need to keep themselves out of the system all together in the future.

Sentencing Reforms

The FIRST STEP Act shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. As to the long outdated, “Three Strikes” Rule, it provides a more realistic sentencing. The “Three Strikes Rule” is changed from a mandatory Life Sentence for three or more convictions to a 25-year sentence instead. Mandatory Minimum Sentences are also altered via an expanded “drug safety-valve”, which gives federal judges more discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums when sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.

In a long overdue change, the First Step Act makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, helped reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses — but it was not retroactive. The FIRST STEP Act will now apply the Fair Sentencing Act to over 3,000 inmates who were convicted of crack offenses before the law went into effect.

Beyond sentencing reform, the FIRST STEP ACT includes provisions that will improve conditions for current prisoners and address several laws that increased racial disparities in the federal prison system. The bill will require federal prisons to develop and offer programs to reduce recidivism and these programs must be in place by July 25, 2019. 

Positive Changes in Prison Life

The lives of federal inmates may change for the better also. The First Step Act:

  1. Requires the BOP to put lower-risk, lower-needs inmates in home confinement for the full amount of time permitted under current law (10 percent of the person’s sentence or 6 months, whichever is less);
  2. Requires the BOP to place prisoners within 500 driving miles, not air miles, of home, if security classification and bed space allow it;
  3. Reforms the BOP’s compassionate release process for prisoners facing “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, including:
    • Allowing prisoners to appeal denials of compassionate release to federal courts after all other BOP remedies have been exhausted or at least 30 days have passed since the request was submitted;
    • Requiring annual data reporting on BOP’s use of compassionate release;
    • Creating an expedited timeline for BOP consideration of compassionate release requests of terminally ill prisoners;
    • Permitting family members, consultants, lawyers, and BOP staff to help prisoners file compassionate release requests;
    • Requiring better notice to BOP staff and prisoners of when compassionate release is available and how to ask for it;
  4. Authorizes $50 million in funding per year for 5 years for rehabilitative programs in federal prisons;
  5. Gives incentives to prisoners who cannot earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs, including:
    • Up to 510 phone minutes per month;
    • Additional time for visits, determined by the warden;
    • Addition time using the BOP’s email system;
    • Transfer to a prison closer to the person’s home, if the warden approves;
    • Increased commissary spending limits and product offerings;
    • Consideration for transfer to preferred housing units;
  6. Requires BOP to help people get government identification cards and birth certificates before they leave prison;
  7. Reauthorizes an elderly prisoner early release pilot program from the Second Chance Act of 2007, allowing elderly and elderly terminally ill prisoners to be released from prison early if they are at least 60 years old, have served 2/3 of their sentences, and meet all the other requirements;

The Dignity of Women

Under the FIRST STEP ACT, an incarcerated woman will no longer be shackled if she’s pregnant. This has also been expanded to include the three months after giving birth, giving the mothers a chance to bond and take care of their child for a time before separation.

Also, under the act, it would require the BOP to provide sanitary napkins and tampons for the incarcerated women at no cost.

How Does This Effect My Family?

Contact us today to find out what these changes can mean for your family members currently in or going to the federal prison system. Jail Time Consulting are experts in all the provisions of the FIRST STEP ACT as well as the other four (4) sentence reduction programs offered by the Bureau of Prisons. Call us at 954-740-2253, 954-522-2253, or (800) 382-0868 for a free consultation.

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