Unraveling Challenges: The First Step Act’s Impact on Federal Inmates

Nov 29, 2023 | Blog

The First Step Act (FSA) marked a significant milestone in criminal justice reform when President Donald Trump signed it into law five years ago. However, the journey since then has been riddled with challenges, particularly in the implementation process by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). This comprehensive criminal justice regulation aimed to provide federal inmates with the opportunity to earn credits for sentence reduction or transition to home confinement through meaningful programming and activities.

One major stumbling block emerged in January 2022 when the final rule on FSA was published in the Federal Register, catching the BOP off guard. It was only at this point that the BOP realized Congress’ intent to reduce prison populations by facilitating the early release of many low and minimum-security inmates or placing them in the community for a significant portion of their sentences.

Before FSA, federal inmates earned 54 days per year of Good Conduct Time. However, FSA has the potential to cut a prison term by up to one year for eligible inmates, also offering the possibility of additional months on home confinement. In the rush to implement the program in 2022, the BOP faced issues, leading to numerous inmates not receiving their credits and, consequently, spending more time in prison than necessary.

While the BOP has addressed past calculation algorithm issues, new challenges have emerged. The Bureau has now cited capacity limits at its Reentry Centers or halfway houses as the reason for shortchanging inmates on time in the community. This lack of transparency has left many inmates uncertain about their transfer to home confinement or release from BOP custody.

Sreedhar Potarazu, an inmate, has taken legal action challenging the BOP’s calculation of FSA credits. His lawsuit in federal court revealed discrepancies and errors in the BOP’s implementation of FSA. The BOP’s response to Potarazu exposed multiple interpretations and errors, with a surprising revelation that capacity issues at reentry centers contribute to delays.

The BOP’s interpretation of FSA credits now includes a clause stating, “subject to bed availability,” giving the BOP control over the populations at Residential Reentry Centers (RRC) or halfway houses. Despite the supposed expansion and additional funding under FSA, halfway houses are facing pushback, resulting in longer stays for inmates and overcrowded facilities.

Potarazu’s case further illustrates this issue. The halfway house, not the facility where Potarazu was housed, determined the availability of resources for his placement. Despite timely referrals, delays persisted, and Potarazu’s halfway house date was eventually set for May 18, 2023, much later than the FSA provisions suggest.

This discrepancy between the FSA law and its actual implementation is not isolated. Inmate Chris Mills, scheduled for release in January 2025, earned 460 days of FSA credits toward prerelease custody, yet his promised home confinement date is set for January 2024 due to reentry center capacity issues. The gap between earned credits and actual release dates poses a significant problem for thousands of inmates, each day becoming a search for answers.

Potarazu’s legal pursuit sheds light on a broader issue within the BOP’s policies, often buried in obscure case declarations rather than clearly communicated program statements. The fundamental question, “When am I going home?” remains elusive for many prisoners, eroding their sense of justice and the expectation of a clear path toward rehabilitation.

While 2024 may bring more clarity to FSA, the road ahead seems to require more legal battles to decipher the BOP’s position. Until then, inmates continue to endure prolonged stays in prison, contrary to the law’s intentions. This not only burdens taxpayers with additional costs but also diminishes the prospects of minimum-security inmates contributing to society sooner. The unresolved discrepancies in FSA implementation highlight the urgent need for a transparent and consistent approach, ensuring that the promise of criminal justice reform is realized for all.

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