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The First Step Act, signed into law on December 21, 2018, is a landmark criminal justice reform legislation aimed at reducing the federal prison population and enhancing public safety by offering incentives for inmates to participate in various programs. 

This comprehensive guide will provide an overview of the First Step Act, its eligibility criteria, ineligibility factors, and the benefits it offers to inmates. The First Step Act is designed to benefit a broad range of federal inmates, including both non-violent and some violent offenders.

First Step Act Eligibility

The eligibility criteria for participation in the programs offered by the First Step Act are as follows:

  1. Federal Inmates: The First Step Act is applicable only to federal inmates, not those incarcerated in state or local facilities.
  2. Risk and Needs Assessment: Inmates must undergo a risk and needs assessment to determine their risk level (minimum, low, medium, or high) and identify their individual needs, such as educational, vocational, or mental health services.
  3. Participation in Evidence-Based Programs: Inmates must be willing to participate in evidence-based programs, such as drug treatment, job training, or educational courses, designed to address their specific needs and reduce their risk of recidivism.
  4. Good Conduct: Inmates should demonstrate good conduct while incarcerated to be considered for the benefits offered by the First Step Act.

First Step Act Ineligibility

While the First Step Act aims to benefit a wide range of inmates, certain categories of offenders are deemed ineligible for some or all of the provisions of the Act. These include:

  1. Serious Offenders: Inmates convicted of serious crimes, such as terrorism, espionage, murder, or sex offenses, are excluded from earning time credits under the First Step Act.
  2. Immigration Violators: Inmates who are subject to deportation or have violated immigration laws are ineligible for certain benefits under the Act.
  3. Public Safety Risks: Inmates deemed to pose a significant risk to public safety, based on their risk and needs assessment, may be excluded from participating in certain programs or receiving specific benefits.

Benefits Offered by the First Step Act

The First Step Act offers a variety of benefits to eligible inmates, designed to improve their chances of successful reintegration into society upon release.
These benefits include:
  1. Earned Time Credits: Inmates who participate in evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities can earn time credits, which can be applied towards early placement in pre-release custody, such as home confinement or a halfway house.
    The amount of time credit earned depends on the inmate’s risk level and program participation.
  2. Increased Good Conduct Time: The Act retroactively recalculates good conduct time, allowing eligible inmates to receive up to 54 days of credit for every year of their sentence, instead of the previous maximum of 47 days.
  3. Expanded Job Training and Education Opportunities: The First Step Act requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand vocational and employment training programs, as well as provide more opportunities for inmates to obtain high school equivalency diplomas, post-secondary degrees, or industry-recognized credentials.
  4. Enhanced Drug Treatment Programs: The Act emphasizes the need for comprehensive drug treatment programs, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for inmates struggling with opioid addiction.
  5. Improved Conditions for Pregnant Inmates: The First Step Act prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant inmates during pregnancy, labor, and postpartum recovery, except in cases where the inmate poses a significant risk to herself or others.
  1. Enhanced Visitation and Communication: The First Step Act aims to strengthen family ties by requiring the BOP to house inmates within 500 driving miles of their primary residence, when possible.
    The Act also encourages the expansion of communication methods, such as video conferencing, to supplement in-person visitation.
  2. De-escalation Training for Correctional Officers: The First Step Act mandates de-escalation training for federal correctional officers, promoting a safer and more constructive environment within federal prisons.
  3. Incentives for Program Participation: Inmates participating in evidence-based programs can earn various incentives, such as increased phone and visitation privileges, or the opportunity to transfer to institutions closer to their families.
  4. Improved Reentry Services: The Act directs the BOP to develop partnerships with community organizations, nonprofit groups, and businesses to facilitate a smoother transition for inmates upon release.
    This includes providing assistance with employment, housing, and other essential services.
  5. Ban on Juvenile Solitary Confinement: The First Step Act bans the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal facilities, except in cases where the safety of the juvenile or others is at risk.

Conclusion

The First Step Act represents a significant step forward in criminal justice reform by focusing on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, as a means to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

By offering incentives for inmates to participate in evidence-based programs and addressing their individual needs, the First Step Act aims to create an environment that fosters personal growth and successful reintegration into society.

While the First Step Act has the potential to benefit many federal inmates, it is essential to remember that eligibility for specific programs and benefits depends on several factors, such as the nature of the offense, the inmate’s risk level, and their conduct while incarcerated.

Understanding the eligibility criteria, ineligibility factors, and the range of benefits offered by the First Step Act can help inmates and their families make informed decisions about their options and opportunities for personal growth and successful reentry into the community.

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