December 6, 2023
The Bureau of Prisons is retreating from the First Step Act law.

It has been five years since President Donald Trump signed a sweeping criminal justice regulation called the First Step Act (FSA). The FSA allowed many federal prisoners to earn credits to reduce their sentences or to be transferred to home confinement for a portion of their sentence by participating in meaningful programming and activities.

The FSA is plagued by missteps by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The agency was first surprised in January 2022 when the final rule on the FSA was published in the Federal Register. Only then did the BOP realize that it was Congress’s intent to reduce the prison population by forcing many low and minimum inmates out of prison early and/or putting them into the community for large portions of their sentences.

Before the FSA, most federal prisoners earned only 54 days of good conduct time per year from their sentence. However, the FSA can reduce prison time by up to one year for many eligible prisoners and may result in several additional months of home confinement. Throughout 2022, as the BOP struggled to enforce the program, many inmates received no credits, resulting in thousands spending more time in jail than required. Now, as the BOP has fine-tuned its counting algorithms to fix those past issues, it is now reducing inmates’ time in the community and reporting that it is due to capacity limits at its reentry centers or halfway houses. Is due to.

In January 2022, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said that “The First Step Act, an important piece of bipartisan legislation, promises to provide a path to early homecoming for eligible incarcerated people who invest their time and energy in programs that reduce recidivism. The Department of Justice is doing its part to honor this promise, and is pleased to implement this important [FSA] program.” However, almost two years after that promise, the BOP continues to find its interpretation of the law in a way that will result in inmates staying in jail for longer periods of time.

According to the FSA’s annual report released in April 2023, the BOP has yet to see any savings as a result of reducing the prison population by moving more inmates out of prison and transferring inmates to halfway houses. This represents a major failure for an agency that is struggling to fill positions for corrections officers and health care professionals, who routinely account for up to 25% of vacancies at many institutions.

The BOP has been less transparent in its implementation of the FSA. Many inmates do not know when they will be transferred to home confinement or when they will be released from BOP custody. Problems with the BOP’s computer system in calculating credits have been one problem but another problem is the BOP’s own interpretation of how credits are awarded.

One inmate, Sridhar Potarazu, is challenging the way BOP calculates FSA credits for inmates and has asked for clarification on how these credits are posted on inmate profiles. Potarazu filed a civil lawsuit in federal court for the District of Maryland saying his credits were incorrectly calculated. In a recent response from the BOP, new information came to light that the BOP is not planning to use the FSA to get more people out of jail. In fact, the agency cites capacity issues at its re-entry centers as part of the bottleneck.

The BOP’s response to Potarazu in November highlighted several of the BOP’s interpretations and glaring errors on FSA implementation. A new surprise in the BOP’s position is its latest clarification regarding earned FSA credits, “The Bureau of Prisons shall specify the place of confinement of the prisoner, and, Subject to bed availabilityInmate’s Security Designation …,” This gave the BOP the ability to manage the population in its Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs), or halfway houses. These RRCs were to be expanded and receive additional funding under the FSA In order to take into account the increasing number of prisoners who will be serving the last part of their sentences in these halfway houses, however, the push into halfway houses is causing prisoners to serve longer periods of time in institutions, which The prisons themselves are becoming overcrowded. The result is that many prisoners are interpreting FSA law and believing that they must leave the institution sooner than they are told by their case managers.

With Potarazu, it was the halfway house, not FCI Cumberland where Potarazu was housed at the time, that determined when resources would be available for placement of the inmate. As the government said in its response to Potarazu, “…FCI Cumberland referred him timely [Potarazu] to the Halfway House, but despite several follow-ups from the institute, the Halfway House did not respond for several months. The BOP actually produced an affidavit from Potarazu’s case manager stating that he had indeed “submitted the petitioner’s application”. [Potarazu] Halfway house referral paperwork at the Residential Reentry Management (RRM) field office in Baltimore on October 27, 2022″ requesting a halfway house date of November 15, 2022. Case manager acknowledged it took several months to receive a halfway house date Even after sending several follow-up emails to RRM, finally, on January 31, 2023, RRM gave the date of May 18, 2023 for Potarazu.

This is not stated at all in the provisions of the FSA Act. The final rule states “The Act provides that ‘‘[t]ime credits earned. , , By prisoners who successfully participate in programs or productive activities that reduce recidivism will do “Should be applied to time in pre-release detention or supervised release.” [Emphasis added], The BOP has now said this is subject to bed availability, which makes sense, but the BOP was tasked with expanding its residential re-entry centers. The real cost savings, about half of the $120 per day for a person living in institutional housing, cannot be achieved as long as there are prisoners in prisons who are not being moved out.

Chris Mills is currently incarcerated at FPC Pensacola and is scheduled to be released from the BOP in January 2025, which represents a year off his sentence. However, Mills has also earned 460 days of FSA for pre-release custody (home confinement), meaning he was scheduled to leave prison for home confinement in October 2023. In fact, under the Second Chance Act, he was also eligible for 180 days. Home isolation….he could leave on April 30, 2023. Yet Mills was promised a home confinement date in January 2024 because there was no space at re-entry centers. If Mills had been placed on home confinement at the amount he earned under the FSA and his eligibility under the Second Chance Act, he would have been home for 260 days longer than the BOP offered. At a savings of $60/day that is $15,600. If only Mills were there. This is a problem for thousands of prisoners who do not know when they will get out of jail and are constantly searching for answers as to why this is so every day.

Potarazu is scheduled to be released from the BOP in December and there is no real way for him to get his time back. However, his pursuit of this case has helped shed light on BOP policy that often appears in vague case announcements rather than program statements for everyone to understand. An inmate’s simple question, “When am I going home?” It should not be difficult to answer and every prisoner should have the right to know when his debt will be repaid.

The BOP has the ability to enforce the law and send more inmates to home confinement if it wishes to do so. Right now, prisoners have few options for bringing their case through the BOP’s administrative process because neither prisoners nor staff are clear on FSA rules or interpretation. Often, prisoners find out their dates so late that the administrative process becomes useless as any resolution from such a process is delayed and may take months to resolve.

2024 should provide more clarity on the FSA, but more litigation will be needed to ascertain the BOP’s status. Until then, prisoners are staying in prison longer than the law intended, costing taxpayers more money and diminishing the hopes of many minimum security prisoners who could soon become contributing members of society. Can.

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