Blog Article 

 What is the First Step Act 

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Michael Santos

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Date: November 27, 2023

Title: Understanding the First Step Act

Blurb: With The First Step Act, Congress and the President passed the most significant piece of prison-reform legislation since the mid-1980s–when I began serving my sentence. It is a first step toward opening opportunities to incentivize the pursuit of excellence.

What is the First Step Act:

The First Step Act (FSA), a significant piece of prison reform legislation, represented a significant improvement of the federal system. During the 26 years that I served in federal prison, I worked hard to promote the idea of measuring justice through the promise of incentives. In 2016, for example, the UC San Francisco Law Journal published my article, “Incentivizing Excellence: A Suggestion for Merit-Based Redctions from a twenty-Six-Year Federal Prison Insider.”

Former President Trump signed the law in 2018. In my view, it would improve outcomes for all justice-impacted people. Aspects of the law apply to all people in federal prison, while other aspects apply to people depending on individual factors.

The First Step Act opened opportunities for some people to work toward earning a higher level of liberty at an earlier time. For example, under the Act, people in federal prison would begin to earn 54 days of good time credit for every year of the imposed sentence. This change led to an earlier release for thousands of people.

The Act required the Attorney General to develop a risk and needs assessment system to assess the recidivism risk and criminogenic needs of all people in federal prison. This assessment aims to place prisoners in recidivism-reducing programs and productive activities to address their needs and reduce the risk of reoffending.

Furthermore, the First Step Act expanded opportunities for some people to accelerate their release date depending on various factors. Specifically, people could earn “time credits” that would apply to their earlier transition to a community-confinement setting, including house arrest. Under the current law, people would have to do the following:

  • Complete a survey that would lead to a “PATTERN” score. In theory, the PATTERN score would measure a person’s risk for recidivism.
    • A person would receive the first PATTERN score within 30 days of arriving at an institution.
    • If a person did not have a “disqualifying” offense (typically a crime of violence or a crime that included a weapon), a person would qualify for Earned Time Credits.
    • If a person scored a minimum or low score on the PATTERN, and a person participated in qualifying FSA programs, the person would earn 10 days of FSA credits for each month that the person served.
    • The person would receive a second PATTERN score, typically within seven months of the time a person arrived at a designated federal prison. If the second PATTERN score showed a minimum or low risk of recidivating (and it did not rise), the person would begin to accumulate a total of 15 days of FSA credit each month.
      • FSA Credits are in addition to any other credits the person could earn.

Overall, the First Step Act showed a bipartisan effort to improve criminal justice outcomes, reduce the size of the federal prison population, and create mechanisms to maintain public safety, with a focus on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and providing opportunities for successful reentry into society. 

For information on disqualifying offenses, see the following links:

Public Law:

BOP website and disqualifying offenses:

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