DOJ Announces Release of 3,100 Under FIRST STEP Act

Also debuts new risk assessment tool

Attorney General William Barr / Getty Images

Roughly 3,100 federal prison inmates will soon be released, the Department of Justice announced Friday, as part of implementation of federal criminal justice reform enacted into law last year.

"The timely, efficient, and effective implementation of the First Step Act is a priority for the Department of Justice and this Administration," Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said. "Starting today at prisons around the country, nearly 3,100 inmates are being released from BOP custody due to the increase in good conduct time applied to reduce their sentences under the First Step Act."

One of the major changes brought about by the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan reform bill that even earned the approval of usually "tough-on-crime" President Donald Trump, was a reform to the system of federal "good time" credits. These credits provide a sentence reduction for well-behaved prisoners, and are meant to incentivize reform and reduce recidivism.

Prior to the FIRST STEP Act, the Bureau of Prisons interpreted existing law to grant prisoners 47 days off for every year of good time served. But the bill clarified that rule, retroactively increasing the number to 54 days off. The 3,100 prisoners slated to be released are the beneficiaries of this change, having gained days for time already served.

The retroactive expansion of good time credits means that thousands of individuals will be released without exposure to the enhanced recidivism-reduction programming that was a focus of FIRST STEP. Proponents of the reform argue that prisoners are getting the credits they were unduly deprived of by the prior interpretation; opponents argue that the change amounts to little more than, as Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) put it, a "jailbreak."

In addition to the prisoner release, DOJ announced a number of other steps towards implementation of FIRST STEP Friday. These include revisions to its "compassionate release" program for older offenders; expanded use of home confinement for low-risk offenders; and expanded access to drug treatment, including screening detained individuals for use of medication-assisted treatment.

DOJ also debuted its new risk assessment tool, called PATTERN, for use in evidence-based recidivism reduction. The tool is the work of multiple stakeholders, including an Independent Review Committee hosted by the right-leaning Hudson Institute.

"Our communities are safer when we do a better job of rehabilitating offenders in our custody and preparing them for a successful transition to life after incarceration," Attorney General Bill Barr said. "The Department is committed to and has been working towards full implementation of the First Step Act, which will help us effectively deploy resources to help reduce risk, recidivism, and crime."