(Updated 12/16/18): This bill was amended from its original form (the Save Our Seas Act) by the Senate to serve as the legislative vehicle for bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. In its current form — the First Step Act would implement reforms to the federal prison system to control corrections spending, manage the prison population, provide educational and vocational training to inmates so they can successfully re-enter society, and reduce recidivism. It’d also reform sentencing rules and Bureau of Prison (BOP) policies. A breakdown of the bill’s major provisions can be found below.
The BOP would be required to conduct risk- and needs-assessments for every offender upon sentencing and offer individualized, evidence-based recidivism reduction plans to all inmates. Programs could include vocational training, educational support, substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare, anger management courses, faith-based initiatives or other proven, productive activities.
Low- and minimum-risk inmates would be able to earn time credits toward prerelease custody or supervised release (like a halfway house or home confinement) at the end of their prison sentences. Inmates would earn 10 days of credit for each 30 day period of participation in recidivism reduction programs, while eligible prisoners whose recidivism risks haven’t increased over their last two assessments would get an additional 5 days of credit (for a total of 15 days credit earned per participation period). A prisoner could only be placed in supervised release for a period of 12 months or less, and if they commit a non-technical violation of the conditions for their release it would be revoked.
Certain inmates would be ineligible for time credits, including those convicted of:
Sexual exploitation of children;
Violent firearms offenses;
Organizing, managing, or supervising the methamphetamine, fentanyl, or heroin drug trade;
Smuggling unauthorized immigrants with records of aggravated felonies to the U.S.;
Importing unauthorized immigrants for prostitution;
Female genital mutilation;
Drug-related robberies involving assault with a dangerous weapon;
Carjacking resulting in serious bodily injury;
Threatening to murder a congressman, senator, or government official;
Assault of a spouse, intimate partner or dating partner by strangling, suffocating or resulting in substantial bodily injury;
Domestic assault by a habitual offender;
Providing or possessing contraband, including firearms, in prison;
Rioting in a correctional facility;
Felonies committed while in a criminal street gang;
Escaping from prison;
Unlawful conduct related to documents furthering trafficking, peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor;
Failure to register as a sex offender.
Additionally, unauthorized immigrant inmates who are subject to a deportation order would be ineligible to earn time credits.
This section of the bill would reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders while tightening penalties for violent and career offenders. It would also provide more judicial discretion in the process of sentencing and helping inmates re-enter society.
Enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons would be reduced. The three-strike mandatory penalty from life imprisonment to 25 years, while the 20-year mandatory minimum would be reduced to 15 years. Additionally, the offenses that trigger enhanced mandatory minimum sentences would be reformed to include any prior drug felonies that occurred within the last 15 years, or serious violent felonies.
The “safety valve” that allows judges to authorize a sentence below the statutory minimum for non-violent, low-level drug offenders would be broadened if the offender:
Has up to 4 criminal history points (those with prior “3-point” felony convictions with sentences over 13 months or prior “2-point” violent offenses with 60+ day sentences would be ineligible);
Didn’t use violence or possess any dangerous weapon;
Didn’t commit an offense resulting in death or serious bodily injury;
Wasn’t an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense;
Has fully cooperated with law enforcement in providing all information and evidence related to their crimes.
This section of the bill would enact several reforms aimed at improving conditions for inmates, such as:
The compassionate elderly release provision of the Second Chance Act, which allows the prisoner to request his or her compassionate release if they meet the law’s requirements, would be reauthorized.
BOP rules on the use of restraints on pregnant inmates — which generally prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant inmates except for those who are an immediate and credible flight risk or threat of harm to herself, the baby, or others — would be codified into law.
BOP would be required to place prisoners at a correctional facility within 500 driving miles of their primary residence that’s as close to home as possible unless the prisoner chooses to remain at their current facility. Prisoners with a security designation higher than the facilities closest to their primary residence wouldn’t be transferred to a lower-security prison because of this provision.
The federal prison industries program would be expanded to provide more employment opportunities for inmates.
BOP would be required to start pilot programs for youth mentorship and the training and therapy of rescue dogs, and it would also have to evaluate the current pilot program to treat heroin and opioid abuse through medication-assisted treatment.
BOP would be required to provide feminine hygiene products at no cost.
There would be required dyslexia screening and treatment.
The use of juvenile solitary confinement would be restricted for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior posing a serious and immediate risk of physical harm. BOP staff would be required to use the least restrictive techniques, including talking with the juvenile, and attempt to get them care by a qualified mental health professional. If solitary confinement is necessary, BOP staff would fully inform the juvenile about it, and the maximum term of confinement would depend on the risk of immediate physical harm.
The BOP would be required to provide a secure storage area outside the secure facility perimeter for employees to store firearms or to allow for vehicle lock boxes for firearms so corrections officers can protect themselves if they’re ambushed when leaving work. BOP employees could carry concealed firearms on the premises outside the secured perimeter of the facility. BOP would also be required to offer de-escalation training as part of the regular training requirements of correctional officers.