Blog Article 

 Calculating Time Credits 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

Need Answers to Your Questions?

Applying Earned Time Credits at 15 Days per Month

In 2018, President Trump signed the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, “or The First Step Act (FSA).

It’s a complicated name and a complicated Act. Our team at Prison Professors is trying to make more sense of it.

For full disclosure to those who don’t know, my name is Michael Santos, and I began serving a 45-year prison term in 1987. With Statutory Good Time and Earned Good Time, I completed my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons in August 2013. 

While going through every phase of the journey over 26 years, I gained an insider’s perspective on how the system operates. Through Prison Professors, I create resources to help all stakeholders improve the culture of confinement. We strive to open pathways that lead more people to emerge with opportunities to transition into society as fully functioning, contributing citizens. We take a multi-pronged approach, including:

  • Creating resources people can use to prepare for success after prison,
  • Spreading awareness so citizens become more knowledgeable about ways to improve outcomes of the system,
  • Collaborating with agencies like the Bureau of Prisons to bring programs into prisons.

Implementation of the First Step Act:

When laws, like the FSA, bring change, the Bureau of Prisons must revise or write new Program Statements. The agency must also train staff members to do their jobs in ways that often differ fundamentally from how they performed their jobs before. 

Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018, but the Bureau of Prisons is still writing new Program Statements and training its staff on how to carry out the Act. As the most significant reform legislation in more than 30 years, the FSA brings many positive changes, and we believe more favorable changes will roll out in the years to come.

The BOP’s current Director, Colette Peters, testified before Congress that the Bureau of Prisons’ mission is “to ensure people reenter society as good neighbors.” The First Step Act gives her many ways to advance her agency’s mission. It even authorizes her to think creatively, by implementing additional policies. The Earned Time Credit opens great opportunities for people who qualify.

Earned Time Credits (ETC or FTC—used interchangeably)

Earned Time Credits incentivize people in federal prison to develop social, psychological, educational, and vocational skills to help them transition into society successfully. If they do not have a “disqualifying” crime (typically a crime of violence), the Time Credits under the FSA can make a person eligible for early prerelease custody (RRC or Home Confinement) or early transfer to supervised release (having the effect of reducing a person’s sentence). A person who qualifies can earn ten or fifteen days per month of Time Credits—depending upon factors described below.

From Program Statement 5410.01, Page 16

For inmates who meet the following criteria, up to 365 days of earned FTCs will be automatically applied to early release:

  • Has a term of supervised release to follow the term of incarceration
  • Has a low or minimum PATTERN risk level
  • Has maintained a low or minimum PATTERN risk level for at least two consecutive assessments conducted during regularly scheduled Program Reviews
  • Has no detainers or unresolved pending charges, to include unresolved immigration status and
  • Has not opted out or refused to participate in any required program, and therefore, is in earning status.

That Program Statement also includes the following statement:

The RRC and/or HC recommendation will include the total number of dates recommended based on the Five Factor Review (see 18 U.S.C. §3621(b), required under the Second Chance Act, plus the remaining number of FTC days not applied to supervised release at the time of referral.

Further, the “comment section” of the Federal Register shows us the intent of the Bureau of Prisons:

From: 2706 Federal Register / Vol. 87, No. 12 / Wednesday, January 19, 2022 / Rules and Regulations (28 CFR Parts 523 and 541) [BOP-1176P] RIN 1120-AB76

any amount of earned Time Credits in excess of 12 months would be applied to prerelease custody. See Nathan James, The First Step Act of 2018. An Overview (2019) at 5-6.

The Bureau assures commenters that FSA Time Credits will be applied to early transfer to supervised release as authorized by the FSA in 18. U.S.C. 3632(d) and 18 U.S.C. 3624(g). See 2020 Annual Report at 36-44. The Bureau intends to adhere to the parameters of the FSA to permit application of Time Credits toward transfer to supervised release pending development of policy, in individual cases as appropriate 

When people accumulate more than 365 days of Earned Time Credits, the remainder may qualify them to transfer to an RRC sooner, so they can serve the final portion of the sentence before transitioning to supervised release.

See First Step Act, §3632 (6) Relation to Other Incentive Programs:

The incentives described in this subjection shall be in addition to any other rewards or incentives for which a prisoner may be eligible.

As an example, a person who qualifies to participate in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) can potentially receive an incentive of 12 months off the sentence for completing the program—provided the sentence is longer than 36 months. In addition, the person can transition to Supervised Release 12 months early by accumulating Earned Time Credits. 

How to Earn Maximum Earned Time Credits:

To understand how a person can earn fifteen rather than ten days of ETC each month, we asked Hugh Hurwitz who previously served as Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons. On January 23, 2023, Mr. Hurwitz accompanied me to a presentation I made inside the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri. While in Springfield, I asked the former Director to help me understand how the Bureau of Prisons would implement this aspect of the First Step Act. 

I learned from listening and following along as he showed me the law and Program Statements. According to the First Step Act §3632 (4) (A):

A prisoner, except for an ineligible prisoner…who successfully completes…programming…shall earn time credits as follows:

(i) A prisoner shall earn 10 days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming…

(ii) A prisoner determined by the Bureau of Prisons to be at a minimum or low risk for recidivating, who, over two consecutive assessments, has not increased their risk of recidivism, shall earn an additional five days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in…programming….

Mr. Hurwitz helped me understand some key phrases in §3632 (4) (A) (ii) that I highlight in bold below:

determined by the Bureau of Prisons to be at a minimum or low risk for recidivating, who, over two consecutive assessments, has not increased the risk of recidivating, shall earn….

To advocate effectively, Mr. Hurwitz recommended that a person understand the hierarchy of authority. Congress works with the President to pass a law. That law becomes the highest authority. The next level of authority would be what we see in the Code of Federal Regulations, which requires publication in the Federal Register and allows for public comment. Then, the Bureau of Prisons writes a policy (BOP Program Statement). 

When the BOP publishes a Program Statement, it uses blue-color text to indicate the language comes from the Code of Federal Regulations, making it a higher authority and a longer process to change. The black-color text means the Bureau of Prisons authored the language, making it easier to change with updated Program Statements when appropriate.

People who work in the Bureau of Prisons, and anyone who wants to understand the First Step Act, should read the law, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the many Program Statements that the Bureau of Prisons publishes.

If a person disagrees with how the agency applies ETC to a sentence computation, the person should cite the proper authority in a self-advocacy campaign. The following citations provide the authority:

Risk and Needs Assessments:

Changes in The First Step Act led to acronyms that people should learn, including:

  • Needs—triggers that can lead to recidivism
  • Time Credits—synonymous with Earned Time Credits (ETC) and Federal Time Credits (FTC)
  • EBRR—Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Program
  • PA—Productive Activity
  • RNAS—Risk and Needs Assessment System (made up of two parts)

o PATTERN—Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs

o Needs Assessment—Standardized Prisoner Assessment for Reduction in Criminality (SPARC-13)

  • Risk of Recidivism—Classified by PATTERN as either: minimum, low, medium, or high

(See Program Statement 5400.01 for more details on the First Step Act Needs Assessment.)

Since the First Step Act requires the BOP to provide “programs to help reduce the risk that prisoners will recidivate upon release from prison,” the agency now requires all staff members to go through “annual training on the FSA, including the RNAS.”

The BOP created the SPARC-13 to assess a person’s needs. A person serving a federal prison term should understand those needs and follow staff guidance to participate in programs that address those needs. Participating in approved EBRR programs and PAs will reduce the risk of recidivism on the PATTERN. Those needs include: 

  1. anger/hostility,
  2. antisocial peers,
  3. cognitions,
  4. dyslexia,
  5. education,
  6. family/parenting,
  7. finance/poverty,
  8. medical,
  9. mental health,
  10. recreation/leisure/fitness,
  11. substance abuse,
  12. trauma, and
  13. work.

Different departments, including Psychology Services, Unit Management, Education, Health Services, and Correctional Services, offer assessment input and guidance on which programs or activities will treat those needs. 

To qualify for Earned Time Credits, a person must complete the Risk and Needs Assessment Survey, or SPARC-13. The person’s responses to the survey questions will go to the Case Manager. The Case Manager will record the responses into BOP’s SENTRY database, as the first part of the risk assessment. (See Program Statement 5410.01, Paragraph 5).

Initial Classification and Subsequent Program Reviews (Team Meetings):

Before the Initial Classification, also known as the first team meeting, the Case Manager will complete the PATTERN risk assessment, resulting in a score. The PATTERN may reveal a minimum, low, medium, or high risk of recidivating. Ordinarily, the Initial Classification will take place within 30 days of arriving at a designated institution.

Based on the person’s needs, the case manager and other staff members will recommend programs. 

If the person completes programs that target a person’s criminogenic needs, the person’s PATTERN score should improve. If the offense type doesn’t disqualify the person from applying ETCs, and the person’s PATTERN score is either “minimum” or “low,” the person will accumulate the ETCs, in compliance with FSA law:

(i) A prisoner shall earn 10 days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming…

(ii) A prisoner determined by the Bureau of Prisons to be at a minimum or low risk for recidivating, who, over two consecutive assessments, has not increased their risk of recidivism, shall earn an additional five days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in…programming….

During each regularly scheduled program review (team meeting), the case manager must discuss the person’s identified needs. Staff members will recommend programs to target those needs with the goal of lowering the risk for recidivism.

  • If the person does not follow guidance from staff on recommended programs to address a need, the person will not earn time credits. (See 28 CFR § 523.41 (5)(i)).

I asked Mr. Hurwitz to elaborate on whether a case manager or anyone else in the Bureau of Prisons has the discretion to award or withhold ETCs. He explained that 

Generally, all sentenced inmates are eligible to earn FTCs, unless they were sentenced for an offense that the law disqualifies. (Federal inmates in state custody, state boarders, treaty transfers inmates, and military inmates sentenced pursuant to the Uniform Code of Military Justice who are serving their sentence in Bureau custody are not eligible to earn FTCs. DC Code offenders are also not currently eligible.)  

The next step is for the BOP to “apply” the earned FTCs toward prerelease custody or early supervised release. FTCs can only be applied when the inmate is minimum or low recidivism risk, and the earned FTCs equal the remainder of the sentence.  

The law instructs the BOP to assess the person’s risk of recidivism

  • According to § 3632 (4), the Bureau of Prisons must “reassesses the recidivism risk of each prisoner periodically.”

It’s essential to understand how the BOP will define “periodically.”

Program Statement 5410.01 requires the Unit Team to assess the person’s risk using PATTERN at the Initial Classification, commonly known as the first “team meeting.” This team meeting should occur approximately 30 days after a sentenced person transfers to a designated prison.

The case manager will also develop an “Individualized Need Plan,” based on the SPARC-13 needs assessment and staff recommendations. Each person may advance self-advocacy efforts by documenting efforts to address those needs—the First Step Act incentives people who work to address their needs to lower their risk for recidivism.

Program Statement 5410.01, on page 9, also states:

An inmate will be reassessed for both risk level and needs at each regularly scheduled Program Review throughout the remainder of the inmate’s incarceration. As defined in the Program Statement Inmate Classification and Program Review.

This language in Program Statement 5410.01 requires us to look at the applicable Program Statement.

We turned to Program Statement P5100.08, “Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification.” The second paragraph of Chapter 6, Page 1 of Program Statement P5100.08 indicates:

An inmate’s first custody classification will be scored at the first program review following initial classification (approximately 7 months after arrival at an institution). Subsequent reviews will occur at least every 12 months, but may be conducted earlier in order to enable progress toward community activities. Custody classification will ordinarily occur every 12 months at a regularly scheduled program review.”

Mr. Hurwitz agreed that pertinent Program Statements require the Bureau of Prisons to conduct a risk assessment at the Initial Classification and at every regularly scheduled Program Review. The word “approximately” gives the discretion to case managers in the Bureau of Prisons. In my experience, however, a person can expect those team meetings to occur approximately every six months, or less, depending upon the person’s sentence length. 

In our view, The First Step Act makes it more important than ever for a person to develop a comprehensive release and self-advocacy plan. By executing that strategy well, a person should be in the best position to ge the best possible outcome.

Example on Calculating Time Credits:

Let’s say that Jim surrendered to federal prison on March 1. Within a few days, Jim could access the Trulincs inmate computer system. He used the computer to respond to all survey questions for the SPARC-13 needs assessment. 

Jim’s case manager, Ms. Johnson, schedules Jim for his Initial Classification on March 30. During the meeting, she provided Jim with a document showing that the PATTERN predicted Jim had a low risk of recidivating. 

Ms. Johnson provides Jim with an individualized needs plan, recommending programs in response to Jim’s needs. Jim should:

  • Participate in the Financial Responsibility Program by paying $100 per month toward his restitution.
  • Earn satisfactory reviews from his work supervisor.
  • Work through the Preparing for Success after Prison course as a Productive Activity.

Ms. Johnson scheduled a Program Review for Jim on August 11, six months after the Initial Classification.

Jim used the time to develop his release plan. He documents all the steps he is taking to prepare for success upon release, and he follows the guidance of his case manager. He looks forward to his next team meeting.

Jim earns 10 days of Earned Time Credits each month for the following reasons:

  1. He completed the SPARC-13 needs assessment,
  2. He did not have a disqualifying offense,
  3. He followed the guidance of his case manager. 

During that second team meeting, Jim provided Ms. Johnson with his updated release plan, showing his progress. Jim’s release plan made a favorable impression on Ms. Johnson. He began to build rapport, showing personal accountability. She provides him with an updated PATTERN showing that his score has remained at a low risk of recidivism. 

Following the Program Review, Jim has had two consecutive risk assessments. His risk of recidivism has not increased. For that reason, he will earn an additional five days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in programming. 

The Bureau of Prisons introduced an auto calculation system that will award the Earned Time Credits every 30 days. Under paragraph 8 of Program Statement 5410.01, Section 8, on page 11:

FTCs will be credited on a monthly basis agency-wide, as well as during the inmate’s regularly scheduled Program Reviews, based on a completed 30-day period. No FTCs will post to the inmate’s record if he/she has not accrued 30 days in earning status. Rather, any days in FTC earning status will carry over to the next monthly cycle, and the inmate will receive all applicable FTCs at that time.

If Jim follows the directions of his unit team, he will remain in “earning status.” He will need to stay in earning status for 30 days before the agency will award his extra five days. If he only passes 20 days in earning status before the agency completes an auto calculation, Jim’s computation date may show that he only earned 10 days of ETC. On the subsequent auto calculation, the five days Jim earned would carry over. 

Provided Jim remains in earning status, he will receive 15 days of ETC each month following his Program Review. And per the First Step Act, those ETC will be in addition to any other incentive in the BOP, including Good Conduct Time (GCT), and credit for RDAP.

Further, the First Step Act encourages administrators to think creatively about developing incentives. BOP Program Statement 5220.01 sets for the incentives currently available. Our team at Prison Professors will continue advocating for the expansion of incentives that encourage people to work toward earning freedom, supporting innovative ideas that the agency could consider (but doesn’t have to consider), such as:

  • Expanded use of furloughs,
  • Development of work release programs,

And that Congress could consider reforms, such as:

  • Expanded use of Earned Time Credits so that all people in federal prison would qualify,
  • Reinstatement of the US Parole Commission,
  • Open mechanisms for clemency, commutations, and compassionate release.

We’re grateful to Hugh Hurwitz and Jon Gustin, two of our subject matter experts for providing their feedback on this article.

Need Answers to Your Questions?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We Have Updated Our Terms And Conditions

We have updated our Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and Terms of Service page. To review the latest version, please click on Terms of Use. If at any time you choose not to accept these terms, please do not use this site.