How Did the First Step Act Change the Calculation of Good Conduct Time?

Sometimes it’s a small change that can make a big difference. With regard to the First Step Act, passed last December, a small fix to the rules involving “good conduct time” has resulted in some significant reductions in the sentence of many federal inmates.

In fact, it was just announced last month that one of the major developments related to the implementation of the First Step Act was that over 3,100 federal prison inmates are set to be released from the Bureau of Prisons’ custody because of the increase of good conduct time under the Act.

This blog will go into detail about exactly what changed in the First Step Act to allow good conduct time rules to be enhanced for federal prisoners. We will also cover some of the other related constructive improvements that show why the First Step Act has had such a positive impact on people’s lives already.

What is Good Conduct Time?

As the name suggests, good conduct time is credit that federal inmates receive for good behavior in prison. That credit will then be used to reduce the actual time that an inmate has to serve in prison. Stated differently, good conduct time is a reward for following prison rules and staying out of trouble.

Federal inmates who are serving a prison term of more than one year, and less than life in prison, are eligible for good conduct time. The specific statute is 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), provides that an inmate can obtain up to 54 days of time off for good behavior per year.

The statutory language is as follows:

18 USCS § 3624 (b) – Credit toward service of sentence for satisfactory behavior:

(1) Subject to paragraph (2), a prisoner who is serving a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year[,] other than a term of imprisonment for the duration of the prisoner’s life, may receive credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days at the end of each year of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment, beginning at the end of the first year of the term, subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, the prisoner has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.

Subject to paragraph (2), if the Bureau determined that, during that year, the prisoner has not satisfactorily complied with such institutional regulations, the prisoner shall receive no such credit toward service of the prisoner’s sentence or shall receive such lesser credit as the Bureau determines to be appropriate. In awarding credit under this section, the Bureau shall consider whether the prisoner, during the relevant period, has earned, or is making satisfactory progress toward earning, a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. Credit that has not been earned may not later be granted. Subject to paragraph (2), credit for the last year or portion of a year of the term of imprisonment shall be prorated and credited within the last six weeks of the sentence.

(2) Notwithstanding any other law, credit awarded under this subsection after the date of enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act shall vest on the date the prisoner is released from custody.

(3) The Attorney General shall ensure that the Bureau of Prisons has in effect an optional General Educational Development program for inmates who have not earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.

(4) Exemptions to the General Educational Development requirement may be made as deemed appropriate by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

What Did the First Step Act Do to Enhance Good Conduct Time?

In short, the First Step Act gives all federal prisoners who do not have life sentences an additional seven days off for each year of sentence imposed if a prisoner’s good behavior makes them eligible for good conduct time credit.

Before the First Step Act, Congress allowed inmates to earn 54 days per year of good conduct time credit as per the statute quoted above. However, for decades a mistake in the statute resulted in inmates only earning 47 days per year of credit, rather than 54 days.

The First Step Act corrected that mistake. Fortunately, the mistake corrected by the First Step Act applies not just in the future, but retroactively as well.

Seven Extra Days Per Year Does Not Sound Like a Lot, Why Should it Matter?

As we noted at the beginning of this blog, seven extra days per year does not sound like a lot. But a small change can make a big difference.

Taken in the aggregate, the extra credit to each eligible prisoner will translate into millions of dollars in cost savings for the Bureau of Prisons that it can reinvest in better trained staff, better programs and job-skill training, more halfway houses, and additional home confinement.

In addition, an extra seven days could mean a lot to an inmate with a relatively long sentence. For example, an inmate serving a 10-year sentence would get an extra week off for each year already served with good conduct, plus an extra week for each year of good conduct moving forward.

That is 10 weeks extra, which means a release from prison that is two and a half months earlier than he or she would otherwise be home. That could actually be the difference in attending a major family event or seeing a child ride a bike for the first time.


Like fixing the mistake with good conduct time, the First Step Act is making a major impact on the way our federal prisons are run. Yet, the First Step Act is doing so with relatively modest changes. Those modest changes, however, are all positive for federal inmates who have had to confront the strict rules that have been in place for decades.

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