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January 10, 2020

Reviewing uncertainty still surrounding earned-time credits created by the FIRST STEP Act

Alan Ellis, Mark Allenbaugh, and Nellie Torres Klein have this new Bloomberg Law piece headlined "The First Step Act — Earned Time Credits on the Horizon." The piece is an important reminder that, even a full year after the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act, there is still uncertainty surrounding the operation of one of the biggest part of the legislation.  Here are excerpts:

One of the remaining programs to be implemented under the First Step Act is set to begin shortly, enabling some prisoners to earn time credits. But some impediments still exist. As of January, all inmates in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody will have undergone an initial assessment pursuant to implementing a new risk and needs assessment program pursuant to the First Step Act.

By January 2022, it is anticipated the BOP will begin providing all eligible inmates recidivism reduction programming based on their identified needs.  As an incentive for participating in such programming, the First Step Act directs that eligible inmates be able to earn time credits which, while not expressly reducing their sentence, under some circumstances can be used toward increasing pre-release custody (e.g., halfway house and/or home confinement).  The BOP has stated it will post available programming opportunities on its website soon....

In theory, these time credits can then be redeemed by eligible inmates for early transfer into a halfway house, home confinement, or supervised release.  Earned time credits thus do not reduce a prisoner’s sentence, per se, but rather allow eligible prisoners to serve their sentence outside prison walls.

Importantly, potentially large categories of inmates will not be eligible to receive earned time credits based on the crime they committed.  Additionally, non-citizens with immigration detainers will not be able to benefit.... Offenders who complete rehabilitative programs serving sentences for offenses not eligible to receive earned time credits are nonetheless eligible for other incentives including increased telephone and email time, expanded visitation and more options at the commissary.  Incentives for privileges will be decided by individual wardens at each institution.

The current limits on time in a halfway house (up to 12 months) and home confinement (six months or 10% of the sentence, whichever is less) will not apply to earned time credits.  Thus, a person can be released to a halfway house and/or home confinement even earlier, meaning, inmates can spend more than 12 months in a halfway house or more than ten percent of their sentence in home confinement after accumulating earned time credits....

If properly implemented, this aspect of the First Step Act could not only significantly lower the number of inmates in an already over-crowded and under-staffed system, but actually reduce recidivism and thereby provide important insights to criminal justice professionals and legislators on best practices for keeping people out of prison.  As of now, no one can earn time credits for completing the program or productive activities until the DOJ completes and releases PATTERN, and the BOP creates or expands existing evidence-based programming or productive activity.  As a result, earned time credits received prior to the implementation of the Risk Assessment Tool will not be eligible for redemption until the Tool is implemented.

Unfortunately, the ability to start earning credits may not actually come for most prisoners until even later than that, depending on how long it takes the BOP to apply PATTERN and create programming and productive activities and assign prisoners to them.  PATTERN was the subject of a House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing where some experts expressed concern about its “racial bias and lack of transparency, fairness, and scientific validity.” 

The DOJ has been somewhat circumspect as to how close PATTERN is to being finalized, stating only that it “is currently undergoing fine-tuning.”  Nonetheless, indications are that inmates will begin being scored under a preliminary version soon.

Another potential impediment to full implementation will be the availability of half-way house beds.  In certain parts of the country, there is a shortage of available half-way house beds for federal inmates.  The act did not mention any additional funding or resources for the BOP to implement this program.  This obviously could potentially delay or otherwise limit the implementation of other aspects of the program.  Congress’ intent under the First Step Act is well-intentioned, but without adequate funding, it may not benefit qualifying inmates it was designed to serve.

January 10, 2020 at 12:10 PM | Permalink

Comments

Blunt and independent assessment and oversight of the BOP is long overdue. They will not deliver on the promise of the First Step Act. This article highlights once again the inability of BOP to deliver on its promises. 49% of prisoners released from 2009 to 2015 got NO programming at all. 57% of those who needed drug treatment didn’t get it. So I am not holding my breath waiting for a fair implementation of risk assessment and programming.

https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/One-Year-After-the-First-Step-Act.pdf

Posted by: defendergirl | Jan 13, 2020 1:27:57 PM

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