The First Step Act – the first meaningful criminal justice reform in many years – is already beginning to make a positive difference in the lives of federal inmates and their families. Just last Friday, July 19, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release covering major developments in connection with the implementation of the First Step Act of 2018. Good conduct time changes, PATTERN, and compassionate release are all covered in this post.
These developments suggest a promising future for criminal justice reform. This article is the first in a series of updates that we will be posting on how the First Step Act is actually working and new developments in BOP policy for the law.
Three Major Developments from the First Step Act – Including the Release of 3,100 Inmates
1. Releases, Reductions, Home Confinement and the 2018 FSA.
Due to implementation of the First Step Act, over 3,100 inmates are set to be released from federal custody. Those releases are the result of the First Step Act’s “good conduct time” enhancements. The new law changed how BOP calculated good conduct time for inmates so that everyone can now get up to 54 days per year towards their sentence. The BOP was required to change these good conduct time calculations for all inmates before July 20, 2019. We will have more information about the good conduct time fix coming in another post soon.
In addition, there have been 1,691 sentence reductions as a result of the reform law’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. That 2010 law reduced the disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. This part of the 2018 FSA is allowing certain inmates who were sentenced to the most harsh crack-cocaine prison terms to finally get some relief.
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the U.S. Probation Offices throughout the country have engaged in a great deal of activity surrounding implementation of other provisions of the First Step Act, including:
- New Procedures for “Compassionate Release.” The First Step Act allows for “compassionate release” sentence reductions. Since the First Step Act became law in December 2018, the BOP has approved 51 compassionate release requests (compared to 34 approved requests for all of 2018).You can read more about how the first step act changed previous law on compassionate release at https://compassionaterelease.com/first-step-act-compassionate-release/
- Increased Reliance on Home Confinement. Under the 2018 FSA, the BOP is allowed to maximize the use of home confinement for low risk offenders. There are currently about 2,000 inmates on home confinement, 200 of which have been transitioned to home confinement based on advanced age or terminal illness. Click here to learn how the BOP is putting the new elderly offender home detention pilot program in to action.
- Greater Resources for Drug Treatment. About 16,000 federal inmates are actively participating in drug treatment programs, including the highly regarded Residential Drug Abuse Program. Further, acting on a First Step Act mandate to combat the opioid crisis, the BOP has screened certain inmates for eligibility to receive Medication Assisted Treatment.
- “Ready to Work” Initiative. Following the First Step Act’s philosophy that finding employment for newly released inmates is the best way to reduce recidivism, reintegrate someone into the community, and ultimately reduce crime, the BOP has launched the “Ready to Work” initiative, which connects employers with inmates nearing release from prison.
The above list just scratches the surface of the many programs created by the First Step Act. Other BOP programs include a dog-training program for inmates, a youth-mentoring program, a tool to identify dyslexic inmates, and new procedures to help pregnant inmates and provide appropriate sanitary items for female inmates.
2. Full Funding to Further Implement the First Step Act
The Department of Justice has also committed to making available the full $75 million called for in the 2018 FSA. Those funds are vital to ensuring the success of all of the programs listed above, like the Medication Assisted Treatment and “Ready to Work” initiatives.
The DOJ is apparently asking to increase the 2018 FSA budget for the year 2020 by working with Congress to obtain extra money. There are a number of activities requiring funding, from vocational training and increased volunteer support, to providing ESL Textbooks and computer-based educational courseware. This seems to be a real improvement, even if it is small, from the days before the First Step Act.
3. Development of a New Risk and Needs Assessment Tool – PATTERN
One important part of the First Step Act was to improve our understanding of each federal inmate as an individual, rather than just as a number. Accordingly, the First Step Act requires that the BOP identify both the risks posed by an inmate, as well as the needs (such as education training or addiction treatment) he or she has.
With that information, the BOP would then be better able to identify inmates who may be eligible for early release or a sentence reduction, as well as pre-release custody, recidivism reduction, and job placement programs. It would also help direct those inmates with particular needs to the programs that would best address those needs.
Accordingly, the Department of Justice created the Risk and Needs Assessment tool (RNA), titled the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs – abbreviated as “PATTERN” – which is the third major development announced last Friday.
What is the Risk and Needs Assessment Tool?
The Department of Justice claims that the RNA tool, PATTERN, is one of the most important measures taken to implement the First Step Act. According to the DOJ, the risk and needs assessment tool, PATTERN, “will be used to assess all federal inmates for risk and identify criminogenic needs that can be addressed by evidence-based programs, such as drug treatment, job training, and education.”
PATTERN, as a predictive tool, is designed to predict the likelihood of general and violent recidivism for all inmates. As a risk and needs assessment tool, PATTERN contains certain static risk factors, such as age and offense committed; and dynamic factors, such as participation or lack of participation in education and drug treatment programs.
Interestingly, the RNA tool PATTERN was created specifically for the federal prison population. Those who created the PATTERN tool state that it “achieves a higher level of predictability and surpasses what is commonly found for risk and needs assessment tools for correctional populations in the U.S.”
We will need to wait and see how the BOP uses the risk and needs assessment tool and how PATTERN actually changes the lives of federal inmates. The goals of the First Step Act for criminal justice reform were ambitious. The 2018 criminal justice reform is clearly still a work in progress.
The First Step Act will hopefully continue to make positive changes in inmates’ lives moving forward. We will have updates on more FSA topics including good conduct time, home confinement, elderly offender home detention, and compassionate release soon.
You can read more about the First Step Act in our previous articles at the links below
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