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First Prisoners Released Under First Step Act - What is It?

by Countable | 1.16.19

  • Some of the first eligible federal prisoners have been released under the First Step Act ― a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018.
  • Among them was Matthew Charles, 52, who served 21 years of a 35 year sentence for selling crack cocaine. He completed college courses while in prison, faced no disciplinary action, and mentored other prisoners.
  • A federal district judge ordered Charles’s release, and federal prosecutors cited the First Step Act in explaining why they wouldn’t appeal the sentence reduction:
“Because Congress has now enacted a new law that does appear to make Charles legally eligible for a reduced sentence, the government does not object to the court exercising its discretion to reduce Charles’s sentence.”

What does the First Step Act do?

  • The bill offers low- and minimum-risk federal inmates who participate in recidivism reduction programs the opportunity to earn time credits toward prerelease custody or supervised release (like a halfway house or home confinement) at the end of their sentences.
  • Recidivism reduction programs could include vocational training, educational support, substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare, anger management courses, faith-based initiatives, or other proven, productive activities.
  • Inmates convicted of crimes like murder, rape, armed robbery. sexual offenses, aggravated domestic abuse, and terrorism would be ineligible for those programs.

What does it mean for the prison system?

  • The First Step Act is expected to reduce federal spending on incarceration over time, as prisoners will be released sooner. Roughly 2,500 federal inmates will be eligible for early release in the near future due to its provisions.
  • The federal prison system grew from roughly 188,000 inmates in 2005 to a peak of nearly 218,000 in 2012 before declining in the years since, as data from USAFacts shows.
  • A Federal Bureau of Prisons report from January 10, 2019 showed a population of 180,124 federal inmates. The Bureau’s average cost of incarceration per federal inmate was about $99 per day in FY2017 (or $36,299 per year).


— Eric Revell

(Video Credit: Countable / Elena Lacey)

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