What is the First Step Act?

What is the First Step Act?

In previous articles, I’ve discussed how the First Step Act allows some inmates to get their sentences reduced and how the First Step Act is the most recent effort to correct the disparity between sentencing for defendants charged with powder vs. crack cocaine.

Even when an inmate has completed their original sentence, they may be eligible for a sentence reduction if they are serving time for a revocation of supervised release.

But what else did the First Step Act do? According to an overview of the First Step Act by the Congressional Research Service, the First Step Act contains three major components:

  1. Correctional reform;
  2. Sentencing reform; and
  3. The reauthorization of the 2007 Second Chance Act.

What is the First Step Act? Correctional Reform

The First Step Act requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to address recidivism among federal inmates by 1) developing a “risk and needs assessment” for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); and 2) placing inmates into programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism:

The First Step Act requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop a risk and needs assessment system to be used by the BOP to assess the recidivism risk of all federal prisoners and to place prisoners in programs and productive activities to reduce this risk.

Inmates who participate in the programs will earn credits that will make them eligible for release (prerelease) earlier than would have otherwise been possible:

Prisoners who successfully complete recidivism reduction programming and productive activities can earn additional time credits that will allow them to be placed in prerelease custody (i.e., home confinement or a Residential Reentry Center) earlier than they were previously allowed.

Inmates with convictions for violent crimes – for example, “terrorism, espionage, human trafficking, sex and sexual exploitation, repeat felon in possession of firearm, certain fraud, or high-level drug offenses – are not eligible for the additional credits although they can still earn other benefits like extra visitation time.

What is the First Step Act? Sentencing Reform

The First Step Act also made changes to some penalties for federal offenses, including:

  • Increasing the number of prior convictions required in some cases to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders;
  • Reducing a 20-year mandatory minimum that applies when the offender has one prior qualifying conviction to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence;
  • Reducing a mandatory life sentence where the offender has two or more prior qualifying convictions to a mandatory 25-year sentence;
  • Expanding “the safety valve provision, which allows courts to sentence low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with minor criminal histories to less than the required mandatory minimum for an offense;” and
  • Eliminating “the stacking provision, which allowed prosecutors to charge offenders with a second and subsequent use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking or violent offense in the same criminal incident, which, if the offender is convicted, carries a 25-year mandatory minimum.”

The mandatory minimum sentence for second or subsequent use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking or violent offense will still apply, but only if the first firearm offense was from a prior conviction – prosecutors can no longer impose the mandatory minimum sentence if both firearm offenses arose from the same prosecution.

As we have discussed in previous articles, the First Step Act also “made the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-220) retroactive so that currently incarcerated offenders who received longer sentences for possession of crack cocaine than they would have received if sentenced for possession of the same amount of powder cocaine before the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act.”

Inmates in this situation can now file a petition with the district court to have their sentence reduced.

What is the First Step Act? Reauthorization of the 2007 Second Chance Act

The First Step Act also reauthorizes appropriations for and expands the scope of many programs that were originally authorized under the 2007 Second Chance Act, including:

  • The Adult and Juvenile State and Local Offender Demonstration Program;
  • Grants for Family-Based Substance Abuse Treatment;
  • Careers Training Demonstration Grants;
  • The Offender Reentry Substance Abuse and Criminal Justice Collaboration Program; and
  • The Community-Based Mentoring and Transitional Service Grants to Nonprofit Organizations Program.

What is the First Step Act? Other Provisions

What else was included in the First Step Act? Quite a few things – including:

  • “A prohibition on the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in the custody of BOP and the U.S. Marshals Service;”
  • “A change to the way good time credit is calculated so prisoners can earn 54 days of good time credits for each year of imposed sentence rather than for each year of time served;”
  • “A requirement for BOP to provide a way for employees to safely store firearms on BOP grounds;”
  • “A requirement for BOP to try to place prisoners within 500 driving miles of their primary residences;”
  • “Authority for the Federal Prison Industries to sell products to public entities for use in correctional facilities, disaster relief, or emergency response, to the District of Columbia government, and to nonprofit organizations;”
  • “A prohibition against the use of solitary confinement for juvenile delinquents in federal custody;” and
  • “A requirement that BOP aid prisoners with obtaining identification before they are released.”


The First Step Act also requires the Attorney General to consult with an Independent Review Committee which will conduct a review of the BOP’s current needs and the results of the BOP’s recidivism programs.

Two years after the enactment of the First Step Act and each year for the following five years, the DOJ must submit a report to Congress on the implementation of the First Step Act, and every two years the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct an audit of BOP’s use of the new risk and needs assessment system that is required by the First Step Act.

Federal Criminal Appellate Attorney in Columbia, SC

Elizabeth Franklin-Best is a federal white collar criminal defense and federal appeals lawyer located in Columbia, SC.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or send us an email to set up a consultation about your case.