The First Step Act: Work in Progress

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, their families, and their communities.  Just last Friday, July 19, 2019, the United States Department of Justice issued a press release informing the public about three major developments in connection with the implementation of the First Step Act of 2018. Those developments suggest a very promising future for criminal justice reform, and an end to the mass incarceration policies of the past.

Three Major Developments from the First Step Act – Including the Release of 3,100 Inmates

1. Releases, Sentence Reductions, and Expanded First Step Act Programs.

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.

In addition, there have been 1,691 sentence reductions as a result of the First Step Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

Finally, 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).
  • Increased Reliance on Home Confinement. Under the First Step Act, 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.
  • 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 gainful 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 merely scratches the surface of the many programs spurred on 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 properly assist pregnant inmates and provide appropriate sanitary products for female inmates.

2. Full Funding to Further Implement the First Step Act

First Step Act Update

First Step Act Update

The Department of Justice has also committed to making available the full $75 million called for in the First Step Act.  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.

Indeed, the Department seeks to increase the First Step Act implementation budget for fiscal year 2020 by working with Congress to obtain extra funds.  The number of activities requiring funding, from vocational training and increased volunteer support, to providing English as a Second Language Textbooks and computer-based educational courseware, is a vast improvement from the days before the First Step Act.

3. Development of a New Risk and Needs Assessment Tool – PATTERN

One important facet 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.

In fact, the RNA tool, PATTERN, is one of the most robust measures the Department has taken to implement the First Step Act.  Specifically, according to the Department of Justice, 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.”


The three major First Step Act developments just announced underscore the Department of Justice’s and BOP’s commitment to the successful implementation of the First Step Act, and their commitment to helping federal inmates return to their communities to lead productive lives.  The First Step Act will hopefully continue to make positive changes in inmates’ lives moving forward.

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).

1 Comment

  1. Kim Battison on August 9, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    My daughter is in fed. Prison and she has a 3 year old here at home. She had been clean now going on 5 yrs now. She had completly gave up her old life and began her new life without her old ways. She was working and taking care of her child. She was a functioning member of society. She attended Church Sundays and Weds. She also was in Celebrate Recovery program. Please help us get her out.

    Kim Battison.

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