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Time Served Under the First Step Act: Reduction, Not Revolution

by Jo Ellen Knott

The First Step Act (“FSA”), a 2018 law designed to curb recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals on the federal level, is showing modest but positive results in reducing the amount of time people serve in the federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) system.

An analysis performed by Avinash Bhati, expert in Mathematical and Empirical Modeling Statistical Analysis, finds that people released under the FSA in 2022 served an average of 7.3% less of their imposed sentence compared to those released beforehand. This translates to an average reduction of five months in prison time.

Bhati wrote a three-part series of his FSA analysis for the Council on Criminal Justice starting in August of 2023. This part of the series is called “Time Sentenced and Time Served” and was published in December 2023.

An important finding from this analysis is that individuals released under the FSA in 2022 served about 82 percent of their sentence on average while individuals released pre-FSA served almost 90 percent of their time.

Although these sentence reductions are encouraging and moving the needle in the right direction, they are modest. Most sentence reductions were less than a year. For 92 percent of those released under FSA, the release date was moved up less than a year. Seventy percent of BOP prisoners under FSA saw reductions of less than six months, and 40 percent of those taking advantage of FSA provisions saw their sentences reduced by three months or less.

Bhati emphasizes that his analysis has limitations. One is that the data only comes from the 2022 group of released prisoners who may have or may not have had limited access to FSA programs; therefore, the data used in this analysis may not be representative of future releases. The BOP implemented more recidivism reduction programs in 2023, which could lead to larger sentence reductions in the future.

Another limitation which the author has acknowledged across the series is the lack of individual-level data. Those data are needed to understand the impact specific provisions have on time served and prison population size.

What are some of the FSA provisions and their impact? The act allows prisoners to earn more good time credits. Earning more days off a sentence for good behavior incentivizes positive conduct. The FSA allows early release for those facing serious illness or other extraordinary circumstances and shows mercy is possible for those living in hopeless situations. The FSA also reduces mandatory minimums. This provision gives judges more discretion in sentencing for certain offenses and can lead to shorter sentences and less overcrowding.

Bhati concludes by acknowledging the modest gains made toward the FSA’s goals of reducing incarceration and focusing on rehabilitation to reduce repeat offending. He emphasizes the need for continued research and monitoring to fully understand the long-term impact of the FSA.  


Source: Council on Criminal Justice



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