Press Release

The Sentencing Project Releases New Report on First Step Act

Brief highlights early outcomes of bipartisan First Step Act on rehabilitation, recidivism, and excessive sentences

Related to: Federal Advocacy, Sentencing Reform, Incarceration, Racial Justice

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, The Sentencing Project released a new brief: “The First Step Act: Ending Mass Incarceration in Federal Prisons.” The brief highlights the success of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation signed into law in 2018, which promotes rehabilitation and reduces some excessive sentences in the federal prison system. Beneficiaries of the First Step Act appear to recidivate at a significantly lower rate than the federal prison population in general.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, the enactment of harsh mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements led to a prison system that incarcerated far too many people who posed little risk of community harm, with especially dramatic effects on Black Americans. The First Step Act has been a critical means of reducing excess incarceration while prioritizing community safety,” said Ashley Nellis, Co-Director of Research at The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report.

“The First Step Act is viewed broadly as a successful first step, and lawmakers are wise to expand it. Bipartisan groups, including The Sentencing Project, urge Congress to build on it, including by passing the bipartisan First Step Implementation Act, the Safer Detention Act, and the EQUAL Act,” said Liz Komar, Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report.

The brief outlines the positive impacts of the First Step Act, including:

  • Lower Recidivism: The recidivism rate among people who have benefitted from the First Step Act is considerably lower than those who were released from prison without benefit of the law. Though not an exact comparison between the two groups, among those whose release has been expedited by the First Step Act, nearly nine in every 10 have not been rearrested or reincarcerated, whereas the typical recidivism rate is 43% among people released from federal prison.
  • Creating Earned Time Credits: The First Step Act created earned time credits, which allow eligible people in federal prisons to earn credits for participation in rehabilitative programs and activities.
  • Expanding Good Time Credits: Individuals in federal prisons earn good time credits for good behavior. The First Step Act expanded good time credits, allowing incarcerated individuals to earn up to 54 days of good time credit for every year of their sentence.
  • Amending Compassionate Release: The First Step Act allows individuals who present extraordinary and compelling circumstances, such as severe illness and/or old age, and who pose little risk to the community, to bring their compassionate release applications directly to a federal judge. Compassionate release was available before 2018, but infrequently used because of its poor design and implementation challenges.

Despite its success, the First Step Act has suffered from numerous challenges in implementation which have limited its impact and effectiveness. For example, the Bureau of Prisons has failed to provide adequate rehabilitative programming and to swiftly calculate and accurately apply earned time credits. This has resulted in people remaining in prison past their earned release dates. Lengthy waitlists for programs also prevent individuals from earning the maximum potential number of credits. The Sentencing Project urges the Bureau of Prisons to fully implement the First Step Act to increase its beneficial impact.

Click here to read the full report.

Related Resources

View all resources