The First Step Act, signed into law by former President Trump in 2018, promises positive change to the criminal justice system through the offering of programs and services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Known more formally as the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, the bill aims to benefit prisoners by easing life both in prison and after release during the re-entry process.
To grant these opportunities to prisoners, the Department of Justice must first develop a “risk and needs assessment” for each prisoner to determine one’s individual risk of recidivism. Using the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Need (PATTERN), the Justice Department assigns each prisoner a score indicative of their risk of returning to prison. Following the assignment of their score, all prisoners who are members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will participate in programs that create opportunities to eventually live as law-abiding, contributing members of society.
Both easing their re-entrance into society and giving them a chance at a productive life post-prison, this bi-partisan effort works to reduce the size of federal prisons while improving criminal justice outcomes and “creating mechanisms to maintain public safety” (BOP, 2018). Additionally, that The First Step Act provides skill-learning programs to prisoners increases inmates’ confidence in succeeding outside of prison while also teaching them tangible skills that keep them out of prison.
Indeed, a major goal of the act addresses recidivism reduction--more specifically, working to reduce the initial score given to individual prisoners during the risk and needs assessment through the helpful programs and services. The bill also provides new guidance for "wardens of prisons and community-based facilities to enter into recidivism-reducing partnerships with nonprofit and other private organizations, including faith-based and community-based organizations to deliver recidivism reduction programming” (BOP, 2018).
Additional benefits for prisoners detailed by the bill include an increase in the granting of “good time credits” and the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act of 2007. Good time credits incentivize prisoners to follow prison rules and stay out of trouble as the credits can reduce the time that prisoners spend in prison. Among other benefits, the Second Chance Act of 2007 gives federal grants to government agencies and nonprofits to create programs that aid prisoners. Moreover, the act notes that inmates should, when possible, be housed in facilities near their primary residence--within 500 driving miles.
The bill describes new programs and stipulations not just for prisoners, but for correctional officers, too. Additional training for correctional officers and other BOP employees includes new rules disallowing “the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in the custody of BOP and the U.S. Marshals Service” (BOP, 2018). A seemingly long overdue development, The First Step Act also declares that the BOP must provide industry-standard-meeting tampons and sanitary napkins to prisoners for free and in a quantity that meets the healthcare needs of each prisoner.
While this is certainly not a comprehensive summary of the First Step Act, one of the final, major steps forward described in the bill addresses the use of solitary confinement with prisoners under 18. According to this bill, any juvenile prisoner who is in federal custody is prohibited from being placed in solitary confinement.
The First Step Act is an acknowledgement of the government’s (arguably) lamentable efforts at protecting inmates' wellbeing within the prison system and ensuring prisoners' preparedness for re-entering the larger society. Certainly, as with many other recently initiated bills, we can’t expect inmates to immediately reap the benefits that the bill boasts. Undoubtedly, there is still much work to do in the arena of criminal justice, but this bill marks a monumental First Step.
Written by: Stephanie Garber - Volunteer Reader and Donor