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Supplemental Analyses of the First Step Act

For many, breaking the cycle of incarceration can be exceedingly difficult. Appalling prison conditions combined with limited re-entry support--both during incarceration and after release— make it very challenging for inmates to readjust to normal life. A lack of opportunity (educational resources, financial resources, social services, etc.,) nearly guarantees that an inmate will return to prison. To ensure that one does not return to prison, laws and programs are put in place to create opportunities that allow inmates to learn skills that will help them succeed once they are released.

The First Step Act incentivizes prisoners to participate in evidence-based training programs that are targeted specifically at increasing opportunity once they are released. As summarized last month, the Act is an integral piece of legislation promising reductions in recidivism, correctional reforms, and incentives ostensibly ensuring success within prison walls and outside of them upon release.

Following the implementation of several of the acts’ programs, the BOP is required to work together with an Independent Review Committee (IRC) to assess the effects of PATTERN (the new risk and needs assessment system) and the success of its programs. The IRC with whom the BOP consults is the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that manages issues in several different arenas such as defense, international relations, economics, health care, culture, and law. The IRC, assisting the Attorney General, conducts a review of PATTERN, develops recommendations for evidence-based recidivism reduction programs, and advises the most efficient implementation of these programs.

The BOP’s claimed commitment to prisoner reentry is so strong that they begin the use of PATTERN on an “inmate’s first day of incarceration.” Pursuant to this concept, the BOP conducts a variety of assessments early in the admission cycle to be able to provide semi-personalized programs and services that will prepare inmates for their eventual reentry to society following the completion of their sentence. This process includes the completion of a series of interviews and/or tests or questionnaires, the results of which are translated into individualized recommendations. The inmates may be recommended to participate in some or all of the following: career and technical education, literacy, mental health treatment, health care, and other assistance such as treatment for substance use disorders, parenting skills, and linkages to community resources for continuity of care.

The First Step Act introduces several evidence-based recidivism reduction programs that train inmates both in emotional wellbeing (e.g., Emotional Self Regulation, Anger Management, etc.,) and in more tangible skills (e.g., Money Smarts for Adults, Post Secondary Education, Social Skills Training, etc.,).

Apart from specific programs, the First Step Act takes other steps to alter the federal criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level. As mentioned in June’s Blog Post, the law increases the number of “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Before the enactment of the law, inmates who avoided a disciplinary record could earn credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The law increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. Additionally, “earned time credits” can be collected by participating in the vocational and rehabilitative programs mentioned above. These “earned time credits,” as compared to “good time credits,” allow for early release to halfway houses or to home confinement. Not only reducing overcrowding in prisons, early release with the help of these credits will (hopefully) reduce both crime and imprisonment in the long term as education programs do reduce recidivism.

Written by: Stephanie Garber, Volunteer Reader and Donor, and Charlotte Wulf, CG Intern

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