First Step Act (Partially) Explained

We have been receiving many phone calls an emails regarding the meaning and application of the First Step Act.  We will summarize its relevant provisions and hope to clarify many of its misunderstood provisions.

  1. The Act made retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates. Thus, inmates that were sentenced under the old 100 to 1 crack to powder cocaine statutes can now petition the court for a sentence reduction. We expect the Federal Public Defender’s Offices to contact affected inmates.  Such inmates can also retain their own counsel of file the requisite motions pro se.
  2. The Act also took several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It also expanded the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It will now also cover defendants who have up to four criminal history points (not counting one-point offenses), as calculated under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. It eased a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. These provisions are NOT retroactive and only apply to defendants who have not yet been sentenced.
  3. The Act increased “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The Act increases the cap to 54 days, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change would apply retroactively but will not go into effect until July 19, 2019.
  4. The Act allows many inmates to earn “earned time credits” by participating in additional vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released significantly earlier to halfway houses or home confinement. The statutory cap of no more than 12 months in a halfway house and 10% or six months in home confinement, whichever is less, does not apply to inmates who have acquired “earned time credits.” However, much of this portion of the bill will not take affect for quite a while. The Bureau has 210 days to devise a risk assessment tool, 180 days to apply the tool then 2 years to implement the programming which would allow inmates to begin to acquire earned time credits.
  5. The Act also reauthorized the certain provisions of the Second Chance Act of 2010 which authorized an Elderly Offender Pilot Program. That Program has been reauthorized whereby certain non-violent, non-sex offender inmates over age 60 who have completed 2/3 of their sentence can be granted home confinement before they are otherwise eligible. This program will be available in all federal facilities.
  6. The Act inmates or their representatives to file a motion directly with the court for Compassionate Release rather than only permitting the BOP from doing so.

Of course, if you have any question please feel free to contact us at 615-696-6153 or at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

BREAKING NEWS: Senate Approves First Step Act

Yesterday, December 18, 2018, The United States Senate, by a vote of 87 to 12, has approved the First Step Act.  This is the first substantial revision of federal sentencing law and federal prison programs since 1994.  It clearly will help many federal inmates get released early and certainly many defendants yet to be sentenced will benefit.  As of this writing, the Bill needs to go back to the House of Representatives for a “reconciliation’ vote (certainly will be approved) then signed by the President. It will go into effect before the end of the year.  The Act will do the following:

  1. The bill would make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates.
  2. The bill would take several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It would expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It would ease a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It would restrict the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences.
  3. The bill would increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change would apply retroactively, but does not go into effect until July 19, 2019.
  4. The bill would allow many inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in additional vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released significantly earlier to halfway houses or home confinement.
  5. Would allow inmates or their representatives to file a motion directly with the court for Compassionate Release rather than only permitting the BOP from doing so.

Of course, if you have any question please feel free to contact us at 615-696-6153 or at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

BREAKING NEWS: First Step Act to Get Full Senate Vote

The last month as been a bit of a roller coaster ride regarding the First Step Act. The folk here and National Prison and Sentencing Consultants have been monitoring this bill and its progress daily.  About 4 weeks ago, it looked promising, then Senator Mitchell McConnell (R-KY), the Senate majority leader, decided that there was no time left for the full Senate to consider the bill and therefore it would have to be taken up after January 3, 2019 when the newly elected Congress begin their terms.  This certainly would have been the death knell of the First Step Act.  The reasons are politically complex, but it boils down to this.  The First Step Act as currently written is a true bi-partisan compromise bill.  Most Democratic legislators do not feel it goes far enough and many Republicans feel it goes too far.  If the bill is not passed this year, it is likely that in a Democrat controlled House a bill more satisfactory to the Democrats would have passed the House, but with a Republican controlled Senate, no companion bill would have been approved:  Hence, the bill dies.  Thanks to pressure from Jared Kushner, the POTUS and many others, Senator McConnell agreed to put the bill up for a floor vote.  However, passage is not a certainty as several right-wing Republican Senators have vowed to introduce “floor” amendments that would substantially water down the bill as currently written.  As currently written the First Step Act would:

  1. The bill would make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates.
  2. The bill would take several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It would expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It would ease a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It would restrict the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences.
  3. The bill would increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentence by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change would apply retroactively, which could allow some prisoners — as many as 4,000 — to qualify for release the day that the bill goes into effect.
  4. Increase Home Confinement from a Maximum of 10% to 15% for eligible federal inmates.
  5. The bill would allow inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released significantly earlier to halfway houses or home confinement.
  6. Would allow inmates or their representatives to file a motion directly with the court for Compassionate Release rather than only permitting the BOP from doing so.

However, Senator Thomas Cotton (R-AR) opposes the retroactive application of the increase in good time credits and wants it to apply prospectively only.  Further, he has asserted fear (largely nonsensical, antiquated and unrealistic) that all inmates can earn additional earned time credit even though the currently written bill excludes federal inmates convicted of certain violent offenses (50 excluded offenses listed) from participating in early release programs.  All of us here are waiting for the final bill to pass to see what effects its passage could have on its clients and other federal inmates.  We will update this page as soon as the Senate votes.

First Step Act Updates

Finally, a hint of welcome news from Washington, DC about the First Step Act.  Recent reports suggest that the bill does have a chance of passing both Chambers of the current lame duck Congress before the break in mid-December.  As many know, the First Step Act is a comprise bill of the much heralded and comprehensive Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  The SRCA would have provided substantial changes to both federal prison sentencing as well as certain prison-based reforms.  The First Step Act, as originally written, primarily included only the prison-based reforms of the SCRA and was viewed as a compromise bill.  It passed the House of Representatives on May 22, 2018 and  was forwarded to the Senate where it has languished since.  Most recently, Senators have drafted a revised  bill (Text can be read here.) which, by and large, embraces the version passed by the House but includes some sentencing related reforms.  In particular, the bill would expand the “safety valve” to include defendants with more than 1 criminal history point; reduce the applicability of certain mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and reduce the mandatory minimums for certain others.  In addition, the bill would make the 2010 crack amendments, which significantly reduce the penalties for crack cocaine offenses, retroactive.  As to the prison reform aspect of the bill, it would allow inmates who participate in certain programs to earn significant time credits, increased phone privileges and relocation closer to family.  As to the earned time credits, they will not be applied to the sentence itself, resulting in a reduced prison sentence. Rather, the earned time credits can be used to increase the amount of time an inmate is assigned to a Residential Reentry Center, Home Confinement or Supervised Release.  Our research has concluded that there appears to be substantial bipartisan support for the First Step Act, but of course President Trump must support this bill or it will not be signed into law.  We are as optimistic about he [passing of this bill as we have ever been and urge all to urge the Representatives and Senators to pass this urgently needed bill.  Of course, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

Senate Needs to Take Action on the First Step Act NOW!

As many who follow our website and blogs know, the Republican controlled House of Representatives passed the First Step Act on May 22, 2018 and presented it to the Senate the day after. The First Step Act is a federal prison reform bill that will allow federal inmates to earn more time in alternative facilities such as Residential Reentry Centers (Halfway Houses) and Home Confinement upon successful completion of certain types of vocational and rehabilitative programs while in federal prison. It also would allow for a true 54 days of Good Time Credit rather than the Bureau of Prisons’ interpretation of only 47 days. The Senate has yet to take any substantive action on the First Step Act as certain senators on both sides of the aisle are pushing for a more expansive bill that would include sentencing reform as well. These senators are seeking a bill that would reduce prison sentences for large class of non-violent offenders. However, politics being what it is, there are other senators that, although they support the First Step Act, oppose the more expansive bill that includes sentencing reform. Thus, there is a standstill in the Senate as it appears that both the First Step Act and the proposed bill, known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, may very well be considered DOA—Dead on Arrival. Our view at NPSC is simple: Although our nation and its federal inmates needs BOTH federal sentencing AND prison reform, a half a loaf is always better than no loaf at all. With the midterms a mere 54 days away, time is of the essence to urge your Senator to push for approval of the First Step Act. To find your Senator’s contact information click here.  Of course, if you have any question please feel free to contact us at 615-696-6153 or at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

First Step Act to be Voted by House Today

Although current political realities have effectively eliminated the chances for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act from being passed, it appears that the First Step Act is poised for passage in the House of Representatives today.  The First Step Act focuses solely on several aspects of federal “prison reform” rather than any form of sentencing reform.  Although, many Democratic Representatives are voicing their opposition to this bill, asserting that it does not include any sentencing reform measures.  Although such is true, we here at NPSC feel that half a loaf is better than none at all.  With a GOP controlled House, Senate and White House it  is not expected that comprehensive sentencing reform is likely at least until after the 2018 mid-term elections.  Indeed, last week President Trump announced that he does support the First Step Act and will sign it if it gets on his desk.

The First Step Act, if passed, would:

  1. authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to federal inmates.
  2. allow more federal prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.
  3. provide a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current Bureau of Prisons’ interpretation of the law.
  4. amend 18 U.S.C. §3621 to require the Bureau of Prisons to initially place or transfer most inmates closer to their primary residence subject to programming needs, bed availability and security level.
  5. ease some of the requirements to obtain a “Compassionate Release” and, more importantly, would allow an inmate—rather than just the Bureau of Prisons—-to file the required motion before the court pursuant to 18 U.S..C §3582 to seek a Compassionate Release.

The staff here at National Prison and Sentencing Consultants will keep an eye on this very important bill and will update its subscribers and readers with any important developments.  Of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

“FIRST STEP” Legislation

Yesterday, the Senate and the House of Representatives introduced companion federal prison reform bills, which at present, appears to have bipartisan support.  The bills, known as “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act” or “FIRST STEP” Act, if approved, would allow for the following:

  1. The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to federal inmates.
  2. The bill would allow more federal prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.
  3. The bill includes a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current Bureau of Prisons’ interpretation of the law.
  4. The bill would amend 18 U.S.C. §3621 to require the Bureau of Prisons to initially place or transfer most inmates closer to their primary residence subject to programming needs, bed availability and security level.
  5. The bill would ease some of the requirements to obtain a “Compassionate Release” and, more importantly, would allow an inmate—rather than just the Bureau of Prisons—-to file the required motion before the court pursuant to 18 U.S..C §3582 to seek a Compassionate Release.

We here at National Prison and Sentencing Consultants hope that this bill, if passed, is truly a FIRST STEP in federal prison reform.  Of course, if you have any questions, do not hesitate to call us at 615-696-6153 or help@nationalprisonconsultants.com

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Since 2015, when Senator Grassley introduced the bipartisan supported Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), it looked like there would soon be a ray of very substantial hope for many federal inmates and those facing federal charges at the time or in the future.  Initially, the SRCA, generally speaking, comprised two parts:  Legislation that would reduce federal sentences for a large number of federal inmates and defendants AND prison reform that involved allowing many federal inmates to receive certain rehabilitative credits that would ultimately allow them to serve more of their time in Comprehensive Sanction Centers, Residential Reentry Centers and in-Home Confinement.  With respect to sentencing reform, the bill would have, at a minimum, expanded the use of the “safety valve” and reduce several mandatory minimums. However, it appears that the Senate is not at all interested in approving the federal sentencing reform aspect of the bill and appears to be poised to only consider the prison reform aspects of the bill.  Although from 2015 through 2018, the progressive winds of change were moving in the right direction in terms of smarter sentencing whereby inordinately long periods of incarceration were being curtailed and meaningful second chance opportunities were becoming available.  By all current accounts, it appears that sentencing reform is no longer a realistic possibility.  It is time for all to contact their Senators and Representatives and advocate for true and meaningful federal sentencing reform

Senate Judiciary Committee to Take up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 Today.

Well, finally some good news on the federal legislative front. It appears that federal prison and sentencing reform is finally gaining some momentum in the United States Senate. John Webster and National Prison & Sentencing Consultants (NPSC) is happy to share this good news. The long awaited Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 is on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee TODAY.  As many know, any bill introduced in the Senate is first referred to a Senate Committee for consideration.  Many bills unfortunately do not even get Committee hearings.  The SRCA is in fact getting a Committee hearing.  For many that do not know, this bill IF PASSED and signed into law will have the following provisions (at least as now written):

  1. The bill reduces the enhanced penalties for certain non-violent repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision. It also, for the first time, allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.
  2. Increases judicial discretion for sentencing of certain nonviolent offenders. The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with broader criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant’s criminal history and danger of recidivism.
  3. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.
  4. Reforms enhanced mandatory minimums & sentences for firearm offenses. The bill clarifies that the enhanced mandatory minimum sentence for using a firearm during a crime of violence or drug crime is limited to offenders who have previously been convicted and served a sentence for such an offense. Additionally, the bill provides judges with further discretion to sentence individuals who possess a firearm illegally, provided that the firearm was not brandished or discharged in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking.

As currently written many of these provisions of this bill, if passed into law, will apply retroactively allowing many federal inmates to be re-sentenced and hopefully allow for lower sentences. Of course, if you have any questions or may need or assistance, please contact National Prison & Sentencing Consultants at help@nationalprisonconsultants.com or at 615-696-6153.

Legislative Updates Relating to Federal Prison and Federal Sentencing 

In an effort to keep our clients and readers up to date, we have listed below many of the pending bills currently in Congress to reform either federal prison related matters and federal sentencing matters.  Readers should keep in mind, that these are just bills and have not become law and unless, they come out of Committee, approved by both the House and Senate and signed by the President they will not become law.  It is indeed a lengthy, arduous and clearly political process but one that can be overcome providing we all participate in the political process.  It is imperative and this stage that all with an interest in any of these pieces of legislation contact their Congressperson or Senator and urge that the vote for passage.  We have also provided a link, so readers can check the current status of these bills and a brief summary as well as  the actual text of the bills:

1.  Justice Safety Valve Act – R. 2435 / S. 1134 (115th Congress) This bill would allow a federal judge to sentence defendants without regard to mandatory minimums under certain       circumstances.

2. SAFE Justice Act – R. 4261 (115th Congress). This bill takes many positive steps at reform the federal criminal justice system and a detailed summary of those changes can be found here

3. Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – 1917 (115th Congress) This bill would limit the use of mandatory minimums as well as expand the use of the safety valve giving federal judges much more flexibility in imposing individualized sentenced. In addition, it would provide certain inmates with the ability to earn additional good time credits.

4. Smarter Sentencing Act – 1933 (115th Congress) This bill would reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and expand the safety valve.

5. Mandatory Minimum Reform Act – R. 3800 (115th Congress) This bill would eliminate mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses except for those at the highest level of a drug conspiracy.

6. CORRECTIONS Act – 1994 (115th Congress) Although very detailed and rather complex, generally this bill would allow more federal inmates to spend more time in less restrictive environments such as halfway houses, and home confinement.

As always, if you have any questions about any of these bills feel free to contact National Prison Sentencing Consultants at help@nationalprisonconsutants.com or at 615-696-6153.