First Step Act (Partially) Explained

January 15, 2019

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