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Federal agencies should not stand in the way of improving our justice system

Feb 4, 2021 by Jeremiah Mosteller

The First Step Act was a monumental achievement that brought together a diverse coalition that believed positive change was needed in our federal criminal justice system.

Even though these reforms were adopted in 2018, the work of this coalition did not end there. These achievements would mean nothing without proper implementation by the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons.

Americans for Prosperity remains committed to the full implementation of this law and seeing more people exit our federal prison system with the skills, knowledge, and personal development necessary to achieve their full potential.

Where do we stand on implementing the First Step Act?

  • Most of the provisions to ensure more proportional punishment have been fully implemented, with over 12,800 people having been released or having secured reduced sentences on account of the First Step Act.
  • Almost 3,000 families can now more easily visit their fathers, mothers, and children who are incarcerated in federal prisons because they have been transferred to facilities closer to their hometowns.
  • More than 400 individuals in federal prisons have been able to access substance abuse treatment that would not have received it under previous law.
  • While some steps have been taken by the Bureau of Prisons to fulfill the recidivism reduction components of the bill, there is still much that needs to be done to ensure individuals can access the necessary programming and activities that equip them for a true second chance upon release from prison.

What is the next step for First Step Act implementation?

The most immediate next step to achieve the goals of the First Step Act is for the Bureau of Prisons to properly implement the new earned time credits program established in the First Step Act.

This program will allow some people in federal prison to earn credits toward a sentence reduction for completing programs that have been proven to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

It is based on similar state programs that have been found to reduce recidivism, correctional spending, and prison populations. This program is the core component of the First Step Act and its proper implementation is vital if we hope to achieve similar results in our federal criminal justice system.

In November 2020, The Bureau of Prisons published its proposed rules for the implementation of these provisions. Americans for Prosperity has filed a public comment opposing how the bureau has interpreted certain provisions.

We call on them to take the following actions before adopting any final rules:

  1. Establish a procedure for individuals to earn at least partial credit when they are unable to complete the program for reasons outside of their control. This exception to the standard rule conforms to the text of the First Step Act and will achieve the intent of Congress to maximize program participation through incentives.
  2. Take corrective action to expand program capacity so long program waitlists and lack of program availability do not inhibit the positive impact of these incentives. Even in the face of congressional inaction, the Bureau of Prisons can expand programming by removing multiple barriers that stand in the way of innovative, faith- and community-based organizations providing programming in federal prisons.
  3. Allow the earning of time credits by individuals in a Residential Reentry Center or on home confinement who complete substantially similar programming. The plain language of the statute requires credits to be available for these individuals and they should not be punished simply because they have already proven their restoration or that they pose almost no risk to public safety.
  4. Solicit and consider the recommendations of experts, advocates, and practitioners on how to craft a correct definition of the word “day” as used in the First Step Act. The current definition proposed by the Bureau of Prisons imposes an extremely high bar to secure a meaningful sentence reduction.

To learn more about the proposed rules, read the full comment here.