A Look at the First Step/Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Author’s Note: Well, our hands and our brain have different ideas and this post to the wrong person. So, we apologize for the delay as we are now just getting it posted.

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With the election just a few days away, we will find out how (or even if) Congress will change. After that though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he would bring the First Step/Sentencing Reform and Corrections Acts to the floor for a vote if he can get the whips (the people responsible for getting the support behind a particular bill) to determine if there are at least 60 votes. Some estimates have put support for these bills as high as 90 votes. So in our opinion, the support is there.

However, if the bill passes the Senate, this is different from the one that the House voted on (and passed with an overwhelming majority). Therefore, the new bill would have to go back to the House and be voted on again with the changes. If both the House and the Senate approve the compromises, the bill would be sent to President Trump for his signature.

By law, any bill not signed into law by the end of the Congressional session (which is noon on January 3rd, 2019), it is dead per se and would have to start over from scratch. After the election, Congress will be in what is known as a “lame duck session”. If Democrats win control over either of the chambers (the House of Representatives or the Senate), Republicans would no longer hold a majority lead in Congress. Many sources have anticipated that Democrats will take control over the House, but not the Senate. Therefore, Republicans would try to push their agendas through before the holiday recess, which normally begins just before Thanksgiving. Since the First Step Act/SRCA are Republican sponsored bills, this would be the best chance for them to get passed, although their is bipartisan support (meaning both Democrats and Republicans support it).

So in reality, if the bill is not voted on by Congress by Thanksgiving, the chances of it passing are slim (but completely eliminated) unless it is not signed into law by noon on January 3rd. If Congress (both the House and Senate) pass the bill and the President does not sign it or veto it, ten days (excluding Sundays) after it passes the last chamber of Congress, the bill automatically becomes law. However, President Trump has said he publically supports the bill and therefore, the chances of him not signing it are slim to none.

Below is a summary of what the First Step Act would include. Some items listed notate they are retroactive and some do not mention anything regarding retroactivity. However, this can be changed and nothing is 100% as of yet. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act deals mainly with drug offenses and since this is a mostly sex offender newsletter, we will not discuss the SRCA, although our friends at Legal Information Systems (LISA Legal) would be glad to fill you in on it if you are interested.

The First Step Act includes the following:

1. It would adjusted the good time credit to give inmates a full 54 days off their sentence based on the sentence imposed and NOT the 47 days as it presently is. So for example, if you received a 120-month sentence (10 years), you earn only 470 days of good time, not 540 days. This would correct that issue AND BE RETROACTIVE. So to determine how much time you would gain, take your sentence in years and multiply it by 7. Then take your current anticipated good credit time release date and subtract that many days. So if you release date was presently January 1, 2020 and you had a 120-month sentence, you would earn an extra 70 days of good time. Therefore, your new release date would be October 23, 2019.

2. It would require the BOP to create a risk assessment tool and classify inmates as minimum, low, medium, or high risk of recidivism. Currently the Bop uses a form called the BP-338 to determine security levels. We feel that this would be the same criteria that would be used to determine your risk of recidivism (although we don’t agree with it). Therefore, sex offenders would never be considered a minimum risk and could only be classified as low, medium, or high since a public safety factor is added to keep a sex offender’s security level at at least a low, unless a PSF waiver is granted (which is rarer than being granted a pardon)! However, this may not necessarily be the case.

3. It would require the BOP to put lower risk, lower needs inmates in home confinement for the full amount of time permitted under current law. Presently it is either 10 percent of the person’s sentence of six months, whichever is less. We have reviewed the bill and in our opinion, those convicted of POSSESSION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY ONLY would possibly be eligible for this, but convicted of receipt or distribution may not be. However, we may be interpreting this incorrectly and it may change.

4. It would require the BOP to place prisoners within 500 DRIVING miles of their release residence, not air miles as it is currently. It would also allow inmates already within 500 miles to request a transfer to a prison closer to home if their is a facility that meets the inmate’s security, programming, and medical needs, as well as having the available bed space.

5. It would reform the BOP’s compassionate release process to allow an inmate to petition the court to review the matter AFTER they have exhausted the BOP’s administrative remedy process OR AT LEAST 30 DAYS have passed since the request was submitted.

6. It would require the BOP to publish an annual report detailing the compassionate release program.

7. It would create an expedited timeline for those who are terminally ill to be processed before those who meet other compassionate release criteria.

8. It would allow third parties to assist inmates in filing compassionate release requests and require that the BOP provide more information to inmates and their families on how the compassionate release process works and how to file for it.

9. It would authorize $50 million in funding PER YEAR for five years for rehabilitative programs. Inmates would be able to earn time credits to cash in on more halfway house time. However, this WOULD NOT be retroactive. What this means is that if you have completed an 8,000 hour apprenticeship program, sorry. None of that would count. On top of that, as previously mentioned in number 3 above, this would more than likely apply to possession cases ONLY.

10. It would allow inmates who are not eligible for good time credits the following incentives: Up to 510 minutes per month, additional time for visits (as determined by the warden), additional time using the BOP’s email system (which we question because this pretty much is unlimited already), transfer to a prison closer to home (see number 4 above), increased commissary spending limits and product offerings and consideration for transfer to preferred housing units (for facilities that have this option). For those who ARE eligible for the good time credits, we are not certain whether those inmates would also be eligible for the above incentives, although, we see no reason why they would not be.

11. It would require the BOP to assist inmates gain access to government identification cards and birth certificates before they leave prison. While we have not been able to confirm this, some sources say the BOP would even be required to pay for them.

12. It reauthorizes the elderly prisoner early release pilot program from the Second Chance Act of 2007, although one of the exceptions to this rule was those convicted of sex offenses were ineligible.

13. It would ban shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons and jails. Obviously this doesn’t apply to most of us, but there may be some female readers, so we included this.

14. It would expand the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR). Unfortunately, we don’t have much more information on this, but rumors have said it cost possibly raise UNICOR wages to close to minimum wage. Again, this has just been rumor and nothing has been confirmed.

15. It would require the BOP to put new programs into place within three years of the bill’s enactment and give preference to those closest to release.

In closing, again this is just a bill and not a law. As we mentioned above, there is still a lot of work to do before these bills become law and the clock is nearing midnight (or rather noon in our case).

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