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Preliminary Analysis of Recidivism Data After Three Years Under First Step Act Is Promising but Inconclusive

by Jo Ellen Nott

The First Step Act (“FSA”) is a bipartisan criminal justice bill passed in 2018 to reform federal prisons and sentencing laws to reduce reoffending, decrease the federal prisoner population, and maintain public safety.

The Council on Criminal Justice published the results of an early analysis of recidivism data collected by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) three years after the FSA provisions were deployed. Dr. Avinash Bhati, a data scientist who has developed and validated many pretrial and post-adjudication risk assessment tools, analyzed the recidivism data for the “First Step Act, An Early Analysis of Recidivism,” which was published in August 2023.

According to the BOP, 29,946 prisoners were released from federal prisons under the FSA from 2020 to January 2023. Of those individuals, the recidivism rate is 12.4 percent. Prisoners who were released prior to the FSA, had a similar risk of reoffending, had similar amounts of time in the community had an estimated recidivism rate of 19.8 percent.

This means the recidivism rate for people released under the FSA is roughly 37 percent lower than similarly situated people released prior to the FSA. Of interest is that the analysis also found lower rates of recidivism among prisoners released under the FSA within all risk levels as assessed by the BOP’s risk assessment tool.

Dr. Bhati points out that his analysis should not imply that the reduction was due only to the FSA provisions being deployed. He says there is no clear, causal explanation for the 37 percent reduction, but several factors may have led to lower reoffending rates among those released under the FSA. The analysis outlines these three factors:

First, over half of the individuals released under the FSA completed at least one evidence-based recidivism reduction program. Dr. Bhati cautions that people with the most motivation for post-release success were more likely to have completed these programs and thus may have stayed on the straight and narrow regardless of program participation. The BOP cautions that the pandemic negatively impacted its ability to offer the recidivism reduction programs. Thus, fewer prisoners were able to sign up for the program during the COVID lockdown. Dr. Bhati says this is why a direct link cannot be drawn between FSA programming and the 37 percent reduction.

Secondly, there is an overlap in the tracking period for the two groups of prisoners. Those individuals released prior to the FSA were tracked for reoffending from 2019-2021. Those released under the FSA were tracked from 2020-2022. The different but overlapping coverage periods could have influenced the observed and estimated recidivism rates. Disruptions in law enforcement, court, and corrections operations caused by the COVID pandemic may also be responsible for some of the differences in the reoffending rate.

Lastly, Dr. Bhati’s analysis used the BOP’s risk assessment tool to find prisoners with similar risk profiles who were released pre-FSA. Even within the same risk level, it is entirely possible that prisoners under the FSA could be different in significant ways from those released prior to the FSA. If the two groups are different in ways not accounted for by risk level alone, that can explain the difference in recidivism rates.

Dr. Bhati warns that “a more comprehensive comparison between people released under the FSA and those released under other mechanisms is necessary to properly evaluate the impact of the FSA on recidivism and crime.” The comparison should at minimum include detailed individual-level data about the people released and under which mechanism they were released, in addition to several other data points.  


Sources: Council on Criminal Justice, Probation Officers Professional Association of Indiana, Wikipedia

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