Despite First Step Act, some federal inmates remain in prison extra months (2024)

The Trump-era First Step Act has allowed thousands of nonviolent federal offenders to leave prison sooner, but advocates say they have reviewed numerous instances of inmates remaining behind bars longer than they should be — raising questions about ongoing implementation failures.

Sreedhar Potarazu, a former federal inmate who sued his Maryland prison in 2022 over the calculation of his so-called earned time credits under the First Step Act, has turned his inside knowledge of the law toward helping inmates determine the exact dates when they should be released from prison, typically into a halfway house or home confinement, until their sentences are fulfilled.

In nine cases reviewed by Potarazu and shared with NBC News, inmates were incarcerated between two and eight months past their “last date inside,” a term that he says denotes when an inmate can technically be transferred out of prison to prerelease custody because they’ve accrued enough time credits through participation in rehabilitation and work programs and drug and alcohol abuse counseling.

“Even one life kept in longer is an injustice,” Potarazu said, adding: “The taxpayer should care because they’re footing the bill. You may not have anyone in there, but you’re still paying for it.”

Walter Pavlo, president of the consulting firm Prisonology LLC,whose experts include former federal Bureau of Prisons case managers, wardens and sentence computation professionals, said he regularly sees cases of inmates who have remained in prison past the dates they should have been moved, with an underlying issue appearing to be a lack of capacity at halfway houses.

Across the country, the BOP says it contracts with about 160 halfway house locations offering more than 10,000 beds, although it’s unclear how often they are at maximum capacity and whether they can offer additional space.

More than 8,200 inmates are in halfway houses, the agency says.

In response to whether the BOP tracks how many inmates may be incarcerated longer because of delays in transferring them, the agency said Thursday that such information is not collected.

“Every effort is made to review and adjust available resources within the community so individuals may utilize” time credits, the BOP said.

The agency added that it “makes every effort to place individuals who qualify for release under the First Step Act,” but that “some areas, specifically populated urban areas, are experiencing capacity concerns.”

Pavlo said he’s seen that anecdotally, as well.

“I have families calling halfway houses every single day asking when there will be space,” he said. “What’s frustrating is that it’s so discombobulated.”

TheFirst Step Act, a bipartisan law signed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, was enacted to give an opportunity for “minimum-risk” or “low-risk” offenders to receive shortened sentences. Supporters believe the law can cut harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism and help lower the prison population, while lessening racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

More than 144,000 people are held in BOP custody, a number that has generally fallen over the decades, the bureau’s data shows. The agency says over 33,500 inmates who qualify under the First Step Act have been released.

But as the law has been implemented over the years, concerns have grown about whether time credits are being properly added up and applied as case managers log the information. In 2022, as the BOP fine-tuned the time credits program, a new computer app was launched to automatically calculatethose credits, although it initially suffered a technical glitch.

The BOP said Thursday that “credits are being calculated as required under the First Step Act.”

Pavlo said the issue now has moved beyond the calculation of the time credits to the agency’s responsibility to secure inmates a place outside of prison or in home confinement as part of their prerelease custody.

The First Step Act mandates the BOP director “shall ensure there is sufficient prerelease custody capacity to accommodate all eligible prisoners.”

In a 2023 annual report, the agency said it was still “too soon to assess cost savings resulting from the implementation” of the law, and that the BOP remains “responsible for the costs for individuals being moved from an institution” to a halfway house or home confinement.

“The BOP has no cost savings to report based on early transfer to prerelease custody at this time,” the report said.

Data published in the Federal Register in September shows it cost $116.91 per day to house a federal inmate compared to $107.39 per day in a halfway house. The cost for home confinement supervision was about $55.26 a day in fiscal year 2020.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md.,a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said additional savings are incurred when an inmate who has been through First Step Act programs is rehabilitated, finds work through transitional housing and, ultimately, does not return to prison.

“I always refer to the First Step Act as criminal justice lite,” Trone said. “We need to get real savings and give people real second chances. We haven’t executed the First Step Act properly.”

Ames Grawert, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice who has studied the law, said it wouldn’t be surprising if inmates aren’t being released to halfway houses as soon as they should be because of capacity — but it’s up to Congress to ensure the BOP has the funding to implement the First Step Act and the infrastructure is in place.

“Implementation is always a challenge in any law, especially when you’re dealing with a system that’s as complex and with so many issues as the Bureau of Prisons,” Grawert said. “It doesn’t mean that people made mistakes in drafting the bill, it just means that the follow-through is really, really hard to make happen.”

Potarazu, an ophthalmic surgeon, said he spent at least four additional months in prison on financial fraud-related charges after he was eligible to be moved to a halfway house in 2023 under the First Step Act.

He first filed a petition in 2022 seeking for his time credits to be accurately calculated, and a federal judge in Baltimore finally ruled in his case on Wednesday. It was dismissed without prejudice after the judge said his case was “moot” because Potarazu was no longer in BOP custody.

But, Potarazu said, he was validated after the judge wrote that the “BOP admits that Petitioner’s earned time credits were incorrectly calculated several times.”

The agency on Thursday declined to comment on the ruling.

Potarazu said he ultimately wants to see others like himself released when the BOP is legally obligated to do so, and that prisoners shouldn’t have to assume they’re going to remain behind bars longer than they should and go to the lengths of litigation that can take years.

“Even when you have the foresight to do so, you’re still trapped,” he said.

Erik Ortiz

Erik Ortiz is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.

Despite First Step Act, some federal inmates remain in prison extra months (2024)


Despite First Step Act, some federal inmates remain in prison extra months? ›

Despite First Step Act, some federal inmates remain in prison extra months. Qualifying offenders can earn “time credits” that move up their release dates. But “capacity concerns” at halfway houses are leaving them in prison longer, advocates say.

What is the First Step Act in federal prison? ›

(Last updated January 25, 2024) The First Step Act of 2018 (Public Law 115–391) created a system in which some incarcerated individuals can earn time credits for participating in recidivism reduction programming or productive activities. Time credits can later be applied towards early release from secure custody.

What is the new law for federal inmates in 2024? ›

New law to release inmates 2024

The United States Sentencing Commission estimates that over 10,000 currently incarcerated inmates could be eligible for early release in 2024, while over 7,000 may be eligible to apply for a sentence reduction.

What is the First Step Act ending mass incarceration in federal prisons? ›

The First Step Act requires the Attorney General to develop a risk and needs assessment system to be used by BOP to assess the recidivism risk and criminogenic needs of all federal prisoners and to place prisoners in recidivism reducing programs and productive activities to address their needs and reduce this risk.

What is the 18 month rule for BOP? ›

Inmates may participate in the program at any point during their sentence; however, they must have at least 18 months remaining on their sentence. The duration of the program varies based on inmate need, with a minimum duration of nine months.

What disqualifies you from the First Step Act? ›

Offenses that make inmates ineligible to participate in the First Step Act program can generally be categorized as violent, terrorism, espionage, human trafficking, sex and sexual exploitation, repeat felons in possession of firearms, certain fraud offenses, or high-level drug offenses.

How successful is the First Step Act? ›

Of the nearly 30,000 people released under the First Step Act, only 12.4% have been re-arrested or returned to federal custody. This is far lower than the general federal recidivism rate of 43%. Below are descriptions of the First Step Act's sentencing and prison reforms, why they matter, and who they benefitted.

How much time do you serve on a 5 year federal sentence? ›

In the federal system, he would serve 85% of 5 years, or about 4 years and 3 months, before becoming eligible for release.

What is the Second Chance Act for federal inmates? ›

The Second Chance Act clarifies the statute governing federal halfway house placement prior to release, and ensures consideration of longer halfway house and home detention placements. It does not require the BOP to place inmates in halfway houses earlier or for longer periods of time.

What is the 65 law for federal inmates about? ›

The proposed law would have reduced the requirement that all inmates serve at least 85 percent of sentences to 65 percent for certain nonviolent offenders. The bill did not pass.

How much time does the First Step Act take off your sentence? ›

Under the First Step Act, eligible inmates can earn up to 365 days off their sentence by engaging in programs designed to lower reoffense rates and participating in constructive activities like work or religious practices. These credits, awarded monthly, are capped at 15 days off per month.

What is the final rule of the First Step Act? ›

The Act provides that “[t]ime credits earned . . . by prisoners who successfully participate in recidivism reduction programs or productive activities shall be applied toward time in prerelease custody or supervised release.” It defines “prisoner” as “a person who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment pursuant ...

Do federal inmates get good time? ›

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b) of the First Step Act, a federal inmate can earn good time credit through various means, such as maintaining good conduct, participating in educational or vocational programs, and fulfilling work assignments.

Can you get out early on a federal sentence? ›

Early Release Through “Good Conduct” Credit: Early release is more easily available based on “good conduct” credits. Inmates in federal prisons can now obtain 54 days of good conduct credit per year, which is higher than the amount obtainable before the First Step Act went into effect.

What federal programs reduce sentences? ›

Certain Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) programs afford individuals an opportunity to reduce their prison terms while incarcerated. This panel discussed the BOP's existing programs—compassionate release, good conduct time, and the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).

Do federal inmates get out early for good behavior? ›

In the federal system, prisoners who, in the judgment of the Bureau of Prisons, have exhibited "exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations" can get up to 54 days per year off their sentences.

What is the Federal Safe Step Act? ›

This bill requires a group health plan to establish an exception to medication step-therapy protocol in specified cases. A medication step-therapy protocol establishes a specific sequence in which prescription drugs are covered by a group health plan or a health insurance issuer.

What is the recidivism rate for the First Step Act? ›

The BOP defines recidivism as any rearrest or return to federal prison for a new crime or technical violation of supervision, regardless of the outcome of that arrest (whether a person is charged or convicted). According to BOP's published data, the recidivism rate for all people released under the FSA is 12.4%.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Aracelis Kilback

Last Updated:

Views: 6124

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (64 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Aracelis Kilback

Birthday: 1994-11-22

Address: Apt. 895 30151 Green Plain, Lake Mariela, RI 98141

Phone: +5992291857476

Job: Legal Officer

Hobby: LARPing, role-playing games, Slacklining, Reading, Inline skating, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Dance

Introduction: My name is Aracelis Kilback, I am a nice, gentle, agreeable, joyous, attractive, combative, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.