First Step Act Disappoints Thousands of Prisoners and Families Who Expected an Early Releases

A Fading Hope for Early Release

Federal prisoners whose hopes were high for an early release thanks to the signing of the First Step Act are now unsure of their fates. While the new law will, to some degree, affect thousands of federal inmates good behavior credits, a small provision in the act has made it hard to put it into action.

Previously, the Bureau of Prisons allowed inmates to earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior. The new law increased that amount to 54 days per year–an extra seven days a year. Advocates estimated that, even with that small change, 4,000 federal prisoners would be released almost immediately when the bill took effect. In time to join their families for the 2019 holiday season.

A Drafting Error Away from Freedom

Robert Shipp, 46, has served 25 years in prison for a drug conviction. Although he had a November 2019 release date, the new law removed nearly 175 days from his sentence.  Suddenly, Shipp realized he was eligible to be released to a halfway house or home confinement. “Literally, my brother has packed his stuff and is waiting for the call,” Shipp’s sister, Veda Ajamu, said. A drafting error in the text of the bill, however, has brought everything to a standstill. The provision in question requires that the Attorney General create a “risk and needs assessment system”.

A federal judge in Chicago has already denied a prisoner’s request for early release, emphasizing the specific.structure of the law. “This court is not unsympathetic to the apparent inequity of petitioner’s situation,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman on Jan. 3. “The court, however, is obligated to apply the law as it is written.”

Confusion Written into the Law

Several activists for prisoners told Reuters they are working with the White House to find any sort of workaround. They said the acts current wording confused good-behavior credits with earned-time credits. Good-behavior credits reduce a prisoner’s sentence. But earned-time credits allow inmates to qualify for transfer to halfway houses sooner. Only the earned-time credits require the BOP to complete a risk-assessment process before implementation. The change to the law shortens sentences by only one week per year.

“You have thousands of families who thought the day this bill passed, their loved ones’ sentence was going to be recalculated and they were going to walk out of their halfway house, their home confinement…or leave prison,” said Kevin Ring, president of the justice reform advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It’s a frustrating mistake,” Ring said.

Srcs: Reuters, “Error in U.S. Prison Law Means Well-behaved Inmates Wait Longer for Release,” Sarah N. Lynch, Jan. 2019., “Prsoners Due for Release Under First Step Act Stuck in Limbo,” Steven Nelson, 12/28/18

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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