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Urban Institute - Next Steps in Federal Corrections Reform, Implementing and Building on the First Step Act, 2019

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JUSTICE POLICY CENTER

Next Steps in Federal Corrections
Reform
IMPLEMENTING AND BUILDING ON THE FIRST STEP ACT

Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne, and Chelsea Thomson
May 2019
The topic of federal corrections reform is hardly new. The precipitous growth of the
federal prison system following the passage of tough-on-crime measures in the 1980s
has, in recent years, prompted a swelling chorus of legislators and advocates
representing a diverse array of views, all calling for reform. These efforts led Congress
to pass the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump in December 2018. First
Step focuses on improving public safety through rehabilitative programming,
incentivizing people incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take part in
programs and treatment aligned with their risks and needs, and enabling those assessed
at the lowest risk levels to earn credits toward faster release to community supervision
by completing recidivism-reduction programming. The law also includes several
sentencing reforms to reduce the application and extent of lengthy prison sentences
owing to mandatory minimums for drug offenses and weapons enhancements, along
with other improvements to the prison system.
This report briefly chronicles the growth and challenges in the federal prison system leading up to
the passage of the First Step Act (First Step), including the findings and recommendations of the Charles
Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which were grounded in research and evidence. We review
key measures in First Step, describe the actions and oversight needed for faithful and vigorous
implementation of the act, and highlight some of its limitations. Working from the original set of Colson
Task Force recommendations, this brief concludes with a description of additional measures that
represent the next logical—and evidence-based—steps in federal corrections reform.

History of Growth in the Federal Prison System
In recent decades, the federal prison population has soared, growing more than sevenfold since 1980
despite the national crime rate plummeting over the same period. The steep increase in the size of the
federal prison system was largely fueled by policy changes such as the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984,
which established strict federal sentencing guidelines, abolished parole, imposed truth in sentencing at
85 percent, and created a distinct term of supervised release, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986,
which established mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses based on drug type and quantity
rather than the individual’s role in the offense.
FIGURE 1

BOP Population
250,000
200,000
150,000
100,000
50,000
0

Source: BOP website,
https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/population_statistics.jsp#old_pops.

URBAN INSTITUTE

The result of these and other highly punitive policies was a federal prison population that peaked at
nearly 220,000 by 2013, accompanied by a colossal annual Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget of almost
$7.5 billion in 2016, up more than $7 billion from 1980 (James 2014). The BOP was characterized by
dangerous overcrowding, escalating costs, and insufficient programming and services to prepare people
for law abiding lives after release. Although the judicial and executive branches implemented important
changes to address the bloated federal prison system, lasting and fundamental change required
congressional action.

2

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

BOX 1

Federal Drug Penalties and their Impact
The majority of tough-on-crime policies that fed the increase in population and time served in the
federal prison system focused on people convicted of drug trafficking offenses, with nearly half of the
standing BOP population composed of people sentenced for drug offenses (49 percent) by the end of FY
2014. Of the more than 90,000 people in federal prisons for drug offenses at that time, 59 percent were
sentenced to a mandatory minimum penalty.
FIGURE 2

Drug Admissions and Standing Population
Standing

Admissions

120,000
100,000
80,000
60,000
40,000
20,000
0
FY
1994

FY
1996

FY
1998

FY
2000

FY
2002

FY
2004

FY
2006

FY
2008

FY
2010

FY
2012

FY
2014

URBAN INSTITUTE
Source: Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives, 2016 (derived from Task Force analysis of BOP FY 1994–2014 data).

Mandatory minimums almost doubled the time served for those they affected at sentencing,
resulting in, on average, an 11-year sentence for people convicted and sentenced for drug offenses with
mandatory minimum penalties versus a 6-year sentence for drug offenses not subject to a mandatory
minimum (CCTF 2016). People of color, especially black men, have been particularly affected by certain
mandatory minimums (USSC 2011). Crimes involving crack cocaine are punished more harshly than
those involving powder cocaine, and black people are much more likely to be convicted of crimes
involving crack. Congress lessened this disparity with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which resulted in
a substantial reduction in federal prosecutions for crack offenses. But the effects of the old law
persisted because the original Fair Sentencing Act was not applied retroactively.
Note: The total federal prison population includes a small share of special populations, such as pretrial holds and those convicted
of DC Code felonies. This box focuses on the federally sentenced population only.

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

3

In response, in January 2014, Congress appropriated funds to establish the Charles Colson Task
Force on Federal Corrections (Task Force), which produced a robust array of policy recommendations
designed to reduce the size and cost of the federal prison system while preserving public safety. The
bipartisan Task Force, which included former lawmakers, criminal justice practitioners, and other
experts with experience at both the state and federal levels, conducted a year-long fact-finding mission
to identify the drivers of prison population growth and develop policy recommendations designed to
reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and hold all criminal justice actors accountable. The work of
the Task Force included data analyses, reviews of the research evidence, examination of state criminal
justice reform strategies, public hearings, stakeholder roundtables, and a visit to a federal prison facility,
along with focus groups with people housed there.
The Task Force was guided by the following principles:
Sentencing decisions and correctional interventions should be tailored to each individual,

◼

including their risks, needs, and assets.
Correctional policy should be designed to improve public safety by affording people the tools

◼

for successful release and reentry and reduced recidivism.
Imprisonment, because of both its deprivation of liberty and its high costs, should be used only

◼

when serving the goals of sentencing,1 and the term of incarceration should be no longer than
warranted to achieve those goals.
Correctional policies and practices should be guided by data and informed by research

◼

evidence.
Reforms should be designed to promote public safety and conserve taxpayer dollars, with any

◼

savings generated from reforms that divert people from prison used to provide more treatment
and programming and promote safer and more humane conditions of confinement.
Through its analysis, the Task Force concluded that long drug sentences, driven by mandatory
minimum penalties, were largely responsible for the growth of the federal prison population and its
associated harms. In developing its recommendations, the Task Force was informed by research
evidence showing that lengthy sentences do not improve public safety (a finding that was reaffirmed in
a recent US Sentencing Commission recidivism study (USSC 2017)) and that it can be more beneficial to
provide high-risk people with intensive programming or supervision than people assessed as low or
moderate risk (Andrews and Bonta 2002; Andrews et al. 1990; Lipsey and Wilson 2007; Lowenkamp
and Latessa 2002).
Task Force’s recommendations were organized by several priorities: (1) reserving the use of prison
for people convicted of the most serious offenses; (2) promoting a culture of safety and rehabilitation
in federal facilities; (3) incentivizing participation in risk-reduction programming; and (4) ensuring
successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices and supervision and support. Recognizing
that policy reforms require oversight and interagency collaboration to ensure they are implemented as
intended, the Task Force also recommended (5) enhancing the coordination, performance,

4

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

accountability, and transparency of federal corrections agencies and (6) reinvesting savings to support
the expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment.

First Step Act and its Implementation
First Step embodies much of the spirit and many of the recommendations of the Colson Task Force,
though it is not nearly as ambitious. The act curbs several excessive mandatory minimum penalties and
incentivizes people to reduce their risk of recidivism and transfer to community custody earlier.
Reforms include changes that can reduce length of stay in federal prison (with transfer to supervised
release 12 months or less prior to the end of the sentence), required risk assessment and expanded
recidivism reduction programming, and prescribed improvements to various policies and conditions of
confinement governing those in BOP custody. The legislation also adds reporting requirements to
improve transparency and accountability. First Step’s key provisions are as follows:
◼

It applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, reducing mandatory minimum penalties
for crack offenses to benefit people sentenced before 2010;

◼

broadens the existing safety valve, giving judges greater discretion to sentence someone below
a drug mandatory minimum penalty, based on criminal history;

◼

revises enhanced mandatory minimum penalties for people with prior drug felonies, reducing
mandatory life without parole for a third felony drug offense to 25 years and reducing the 20year mandatory minimum for a second felony drug offense to 15 years;

◼

reduces the severity of “stacking” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) gun offenses, ensuring that people with
first-time firearm offenses cannot receive the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence intended
for those with repeat offenses;

◼

revises good conduct time calculation, increasing the credit from 47 days to 54 days per year of
the sentence imposed (15 percent) and applying the credit retroactively;

◼

reforms compassionate release program for people facing “extraordinary and compelling”
circumstances to increase its use and the transparency of the approval process;

◼

reauthorizes the elderly pilot with modified age and time served criteria, broadening eligibility
for the program, which allows people to be placed on home confinement earlier than would
otherwise be allowed;

◼

requires development and implementation of a risk and needs assessment instrument for the
entire population that is reviewed by an outside Independent Review Committee (IRC) and
made publicly available (BOP must also expand in-prison programming and services tailored to
the risk and needs of the population); and

◼

establishes incentives and rewards for participation and completion of evidence-based
programming and productive activities, including phone and visitation privileges, transfer to an

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

5

institution closer to release residence, additional benefits to be developed by BOP, and time
credits for those who are eligible.
o

Eligibility to earn time credits is based on a person’s offense of conviction, and
there is a long list of ineligible offenses, including people convicted of certain
fentanyl, heroin or methamphetamine trafficking offenses, sex offenses, gun
offenses, violent offenses, and terrorism. Almost 50,000 people are excluded by
these carve-outs (USSC 2019). The amount of credit that can be earned is
determined by risk level.

o

For those assessed at low or minimum risk, earned time credits can be applied
toward early transfer to prerelease custody—either in a halfway house, home
confinement, or (in certain instances) early supervised release.

The law holds great promise in both incentivizing and improving programming for people housed in
BOP, reducing their risk of recidivism, allowing early transfer to prerelease custody for some, and
shortening time served for almost all federally sentenced people currently in BOP custody, provided it is
implemented as intended. However, translating First Step into practice will be challenging because of
the law’s complexity and the need for multiple agencies to change how they do business. Successful
implementation will require the commitment and buy-in of the DOJ and BOP, education and training
for relevant government officials and practitioners (as well as potential beneficiaries of the act),
adequate funding for the law’s new requirements, faithful development and execution of the risk and
needs assessment tool, and outside oversight to monitor progress (including concerns about disparate
outcomes) and hold government officials accountable.
DOJ commitment and buy-in. Although some parts of First Step are very prescriptive, BOP and DOJ
retain considerable discretion in how the law will be implemented. Some provisions (i.e., sentencing and
compassionate release) became effective when the law was enacted in December, while others (e.g., risk
and needs assessment system and expanded programming) are scheduled to become effective over the
next few years. An overarching question is whether DOJ/BOP will adopt an expansive or restrictive
view as it drafts new policies and guidelines governing these policy changes, including rules for earning
time credits and transferring to prelease custody or supervised release. More specifically, overarching
questions include the following:
How quickly will BOP and other government actors move to implement the various provisions?

◼

Will statutory deadlines be met?

»

When will the first beneficiaries of the revised good time credit be released: July 2019, or
will their release be linked to the release of the risk assessment tool, which could be
delayed?

»

When can people incarcerated in BOP facilities begin accruing time credits under the
revised calculation given it hinges on a final risk and needs assessment tool?

Will input from outside experts, such as the IRC, be incorporated into BOP/DOJ decisions, and

◼

how open will the process be for input from stakeholders and the public?

6

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

◼

How will prosecutors respond to the sentencing reforms and expanded opportunities for early
release through compassionate release and the elderly pilot? Will they embrace the spirit of the
changes or develop work-arounds?

The precise meaning and limits of many of the law’s provisions are likely to be litigated and decided
by the courts. Although clarifying good conduct time is the most straightforward of First Step’s
provisions (and the only one that can benefit almost all BOP residents similarly),2 other provisions may
not have their intended impact or could yield a disparate impact, particularly on people of color, those
without the means to retain private counsel or outside advocates, and non-English speakers.
Concerns about possible disparities apply to the implementation of various provisions: sentencing
reforms, modified compassionate release and elderly policies, the risk and needs assessment tool, and
incentives and rewards, including earned time credits. A priority should be ensuring that people who
could benefit from the various reforms are well-informed and well-represented in any required
administrative or judicial proceeding and that criminal justice stakeholders are advised about the threat
of disparate application of the provisions and take actions to mitigate such outcomes. The statutorily
required reports will examine possible disparities in implementation, particularly regarding the new risk
and needs assessment system, which should also aid in preventing disparate outcomes.
Education and training. As with any new law, it is critical to explain the policy changes to the
practitioners responsible for implementing them and to those whose lives could be changed by them.
Information about the changes should be widely disseminated. Practitioners, who may not agree with
the policy changes, can promote or undermine implementation efforts, so it will be important to
emphasize the rationale and intent behind the policies. As part of the education process, concerns about
the provisions having a disparate effect (particularly on people of color or with limited means) should be
highlighted. The sentencing provisions and revised compassionate release policy require educating
judges and other stakeholders, including prosecutors, probation officers, and federal defenders to
promote equal application across federal districts. DOJ, the judiciary, and the federal public defenders
have already provided some guidance to their representatives in the field. The US Sentencing
Commission does not currently have a quorum, however, which will prevent it from promulgating any
new guidelines related to First Step provisions this amendment cycle.
Advocates, federal defenders, and the defense bar are working to ensure that people who may be
eligible can receive the benefits of the law for the prospective sentencing changes, for the retroactive
application of the Fair Sentencing Act (which requires each individual to petition the court for a
sentence adjustment), and for the compassionate and elderly release policies. Identifying eligible
individuals can be resource intensive and the federal defenders may need additional financial and
training/technical assistance support.
Focus on risk and needs assessment tool. Much of the success of First Step hinges on the development,
release, and application of a risk assessment tool. If the tool is delayed beyond the July 2019 statutory
deadline, so too will its application, potentially postponing the benefits people can receive from the
incentives and rewards, including time earned toward release to supervised custody as well as the

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

7

retroactive application of the seven-day good time credit adjustment. Yet developing a tool that
accurately predicts risk of recidivism, does not have a racially disparate effect, and includes dynamic
factors that can measure the positive impact of BOP’s rehabilitative programming impact on risk will be
difficult. The law requires the establishment of an IRC of experts to advise the attorney general on the
risk and needs assessment system. The host for the IRC was named in early April, later than the
statutory deadline of January 2019.
All of these provisions demand oversight and accountability, making the IRC critical to ensuring the
risk assessment tool is methodologically sound, validated, and applied in a manner that does not
perpetuate or exacerbate racial bias in the system.
The risk and needs assessment system is to be aligned with evidence-based programs. BOP, with
the advice of the IRC, must review its own programs, scan correctional programming across the country,
and determine how to modify and expand its program offerings. Some of BOP’s programming (e.g.,
RDAP and UNICOR/FPI) have been evaluated and are evidence-based, but a systematic review will be
required (Pelissier et al. 2001; Saylor and Gaes 1994). One method for assessing how well BOP’s
programming matches the needs of its population is CJ-TRAK, which can help correctional systems
identify any gaps in their programming.3
Although First Step states that people may start earning incentives and rewards at the time the risk
assessment is released, there are several reasons why that could be delayed, particularly for the earned
time credits. BOP may choose to require individuals to have a new risk assessment and/or associated
individualized case plan before they can start accruing time credits. In addition, programming needs to
be expanded in order for people to comply with their case plans, and internal policies and procedures
governing the time credits also need to be in place. BOP should be explicit about when it will permit
people to start earning credits, allowing Congress and/or other stakeholders to clarify if their intent was
for people to earn credits more quickly.
Funding. It is also critical that Congress appropriate the $75 million 4 authorized in First Step for
implementing the risk and needs assessment system and new and evidence-based programs aligned to
the population’s needs. There was no First Step request in BOP’s 2020 Congressional budget,
purportedly because BOP had not yet estimated the funds needed for implementation (DOJ 2019). In
early April, the President indicated that there would be an additional request for resources to fully
implement First Step, but that request has yet to be made.
Oversight/accountability. Transparency about implementation activities would promote accountability
and afford an opportunity for those outside the government to highlight instances where
implementation choices deviate from the intent or spirit of the law. In addition to the statutorily
required reports by the Attorney General, the IRC, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it
would be helpful to receive regular updates from the BOP/DOJ and the US Sentencing Commission,
which will learn about most of the beneficiaries of the law. When the attorney general announced the
host for the IRC,5 he also summarized the progress to date under First Step, which was a helpful update
for the field.

8

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

What Additional Reforms are Needed?
Without question, the First Step is an important accomplishment and its impact is already being felt by
individuals and families across the country, primarily through the retroactive application of the Fair
Sentencing Act and the revised policy on compassionate release. In addition to the positive impact
various reforms will likely have over the coming years, the legislation recognizes important principles
that can spur future reform: individualizing sentencing and corrections decisions, employing
incarceration judiciously, using research and data to improve public safety, and improving transparency
about the sentencing and corrections system.
However, though some First Step provisions are essentially the same as several of those
recommended by the Task Force, many do not go as far as the Task Force and some recommendations
are not addressed at all (for a comparison of the how the key First Step provisions map against the
Colson Task Force recommendations, see the appendix). Substantial reform work remains to be done.
Key areas for future reform include filling the gaps in the First Step Act (e.g., expanding eligibility for
earned time credits and making all sentencing provisions retroactive) and embracing additional and
more impactful reforms recommended by the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections (e.g., reducing
or eliminating mandatory minimum penalties and creating a second look provision) that were not
included in First Step. Specific suggestions are presented below, using the Colson framework.
Reserve prison for those convicted of the most serious crimes:
◼

Apply all First Step sentencing provisions retroactively so people sentenced and incarcerated
under the old rules regarding repeat drug offenses, gun stacking offenses, and the expanded
safety valve would have the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered under the new
rules.

◼

Eliminate mandatory minimums except for drug kingpins (CCTF 1.1).

◼

Apply sunset provision to any future mandatory minimum penalties (CCTF 1.3).

Promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation:
◼

Establish a visitation and family affairs office at BOP to oversee and ease visitation procedures
(CCTF 2.5).

Incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming:
◼

Reconsider all the carve-outs under First Step that exclude people from earning and using time
credits. Expand First Step eligibility for early transfer to prerelease custody to include people
assessed at medium or high risk. Earned time credits for early prerelease custody could benefit
those at higher risk levels who are in the greatest need of support before release.

◼

Authorize earned time credits to be used to reduce the prison term itself (CCTF 3.1).

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

9

◼

Create a second look provision to allow someone to apply for resentencing after 15 years of
incarceration (CCTF 3.2).

Ensure successful reintegration of people exiting federal prison:
◼

Improve coordination among BOP, US Probation, and Residential Reentry Centers by sharing
information on risk and needs assessment, program participation, medical and mental health
status, and aftercare information (CCTF 4.2).

To enhance coordination, performance, accountability, and transparency:
◼

Create a standing oversight board (Performance Accountability Oversight Board) to monitor
the entire BOP. Such a board could “oversee changes in policy and practice, guide and monitor
performance measurement and strategic planning activities, review and help shape the delivery
of risk-reduction programming and transition planning, and monitor conditions of confinement
to ensure they are secure and humane” as the Task Force recommended (CCTF 5.5).

◼

Improve caseload reporting and performance metrics for the corrections and supervision
population. Develop metrics and an ongoing review process for performance measurement and
disseminate recidivism data annually (CCTF 5.2).

◼

Lift the ban on Pell grants to support those who want to pursue their education beyond the high
school level (CCTF 5.6).

Reinvest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment:
◼

Appropriate funds authorized by the First Step Act.

◼

Fund US Probation to increase staffing, programs, and services (CCTF 6.1).

Conclusion
Federal corrections reform has been long overdue. The progress made by the First Step Act can be
cemented through effective implementation and built upon through future reform. The Colson Task
Force’s recommendations offer a roadmap for further improving federal sentencing and corrections
policy. The results would be a federal prison system better aligned with recidivism reduction principles
and research evidence, enhanced public safety, a smaller federal prison population, and fewer lives
negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.

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NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

Appendix. Charles Colson Task Force (CCTF)
Recommendations Compared with First Step Act
TABLE A.1

Reserving Prison for those Convicted of Serious Offenses
CCTF recommendationsa
1.1 Mandatory minimums for drug
offenses

First Stepb
◼
◼
◼

Gaps/remaining next steps

applies Fair Sentencing Act
retroactively
expands judicial safety valve
reduces enhanced penalties for
some repeat drug offenses

◼

revises penalties for 18 U.S.C. §
924(c) gun “stacking”

◼

◼

1.2 Mandatory minimums for
weapon possession

◼

1.3 Mandatory minimum research
and sunset Provisions

N/A

◼

1.4 Alternatives to incarceration

N/A

◼

◼

◼

repeal drug mandatory
minimum penalties, except for
drug kingpins (prospective and
retroactive)
revise sentencing guidelines to
reflect role and culpability;
prescribe alternatives to
prison for lower-level drug
trafficking offenses
enable judges to sentence
below the mandatory
minimum weapon
enhancement for possession
associated with nonviolent
offense (prospective)
Apply sunset provision to any
future mandatory minimum
penalties
prescribe probation for lowerlevel drug trafficking offenses
and consider doing so for
other offense types
increase use of alternatives to
incarceration including frontend diversion courts, problemsolving courts, and evidencebased diversion
authorize and fund front-end
diversion programs and
problem-solving courts,
evaluating alternatives

a

The appendix excludes some CCTF recommendations that were directed to the executive branch.
Italicized entries indicate that the provision is included in the First Step, but not in the CCTF. Generally, these provisions do not
go as far as the Task Force recommended.
b

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

11

TABLE A.2

Promoting a Culture of Safety and Rehabilitation in Federal Facilities
CCTF recommendations
2.1 Safety and security in BOP

First Step
◼

◼

2.2 Risk and needs

◼

◼

2.3 Programming

◼

◼

◼

◼

2.4 Conditions of confinement and
rehabilitative culture

◼
◼

◼
◼

◼
◼

2.5 Family engagement

◼

enables individuals to earn up
to 15 percent off sentence to
incentivize good conduct
(increasing the good time
credit from 47 to 54 days)
requires de-escalation training
for all staff
requires development and
implementation of an actuarial
risk and needs assessment tool
(with assistance from an IRC)
requires development of case
plans and delivery of evidencebased programming based on
individual risk and needs
requires development of
aggregate criminogenic risk
and needs profile of its
population
requires review of BOP
programming and scan of best
evidence-based programming.
house people with similar risks
together, consistent with safety
concerns.
expand educational and
occupational opportunities [in
accordance with facility need]
bans shackling of pregnant
women
requires dyslexia screening and
programming that
accommodates dyslexia
limits solitary confinement for
juveniles
reforms compassionate release
program for people facing
“extraordinary and compelling”
circumstances
reauthorizes elderly pilot, with
less restrictive age criteria
requires review of medication
assisted treatment programs
Places people 500 driving miles
from home

Gaps/remaining next steps
N/A

N/A

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼
◼

12

conduct a systemwide
assessment of facility-specific
programming needs
allocate programs and
treatment offerings in
accordance with facility risk
and need

ensure housing and security
procedures respond to specific
needs of diverse populations
use segregated housing as
punitive measure only in
extraordinary circumstances
develop appropriate and
nonrestrictive housing options
for those in need of protective
custody
train all staff on
communication, problem
solving, and procedurally just
resolution practices
house people as close to home
communities as possible
establish visitation and family
affairs office to oversee and
ease visitation procedures
expand video conferencing
and other visitation programs
enhance support for families
of people in prison

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

TABLE A.3

Incentivizing Participation in Risk-Reduction Programming
CCTF Recommendations
3.1 Risk-reduction programming

First Step
◼

◼

◼

3.2 Second Look provision

establishes incentives and
rewards based on risk reduction
programming
allows eligible6 people to earn
time credits based on risk
reduction programming that can
lead to early transfer to
prerelease custody for those
assessed at low or minimum
risk—either in a halfway house,
home confinement, or (in certain
instances) early supervised
release
directs BOP to assess work
programs and feasibility of
manufacturing products
purchased by the government
that are manufactured overseas

N/A

Gaps/remaining next steps
◼

◼

◼

◼

enable individuals not serving
life sentences to earn up to 20
percent off time served by
complying with individualized
case plans
enable all Residential Drug
Abuse Treatment Program
participants not serving life
sentences to earn up to 1 year
off time served

enable resentencing for
anyone who has served more
than 15 years of their sentence
develop guidelines for Second
Look reviews and sentence
modifications

TABLE A.4

Ensuring Successful Reintegration by Using Evidence-Based Practices in Supervision and Support
CCTF recommendations

First Step

Gaps/remaining next steps

4.1 Prerelease custody and
residential reentry centers (RRCs)

◼

requires BOP to have sufficient
capacity for expanded prerelease
custody provisions

◼

4.2 Safe and seamless
reintegration

◼

requires identification for
persons leaving BOP

◼

◼

◼

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

make recommendations
regarding allocation of RRC
beds, alternatives to RRC
placement, and performancebased RRC contracts
improve coordination by
establishing a shared
information system
share information on risk and
needs assessment, program
participation, medical and
mental health status, and
aftercare information
supervised release and early
termination

13

TABLE A.5

Enhancing System Performance and Accountability through Better Coordination across Agencies and
Increased Transparency
CCTF recommendations

First Step

5.1 Establish Joint Department of
Justice/
Judiciary Working Group (Joint
Working Group) to oversee
reforms

◼

5.2 Caseload reporting and
performance metrics

N/A

requires reporting from BOP,
IRC, and GAO

Gaps/remaining next steps
◼

◼

◼

◼

5.3 Establish BOP Office of Victim
Services
5.4 Membership, role, and
capacity of the USSC

N/A

N/A

N/A

◼

◼

◼

5.5 Permanent BOP Performance,
Accountability, and Oversight
Board (PAOB)

◼

establishes the IRC to advise
AG/BOP on development of risk
and needs assessment system

◼

◼

◼

◼

◼

14

monitor implementation of
recommended legislative and
policy changes
submit an annual report on
reform progress and
performance metrics
review and expand annual
reporting of caseload data for
the corrections and
supervision population
develop metrics and an
ongoing review for
performance measurement;
disseminate recidivism data
annually

expand voting membership of
USSC to include
representation of victims,
formerly incarcerated
individuals, defense attorneys,
and experts in sentencing and
corrections
routinely monitor and report
on the impact of sentencing
changes
revise 2011 mandatory
minimum report (N.B.
Completed)
work with BOP to develop and
promulgate performance
metrics
monitor development of new
risk and needs assessment and
implementation of new earned
time credits
oversee development and
implementation of
comprehensive 10-year plan
to restructure federal prison
system
review BOP oversight,
accreditation, auditing, and
compliance mechanisms
conduct special studies such as
review of prerelease custody
practices and procedures,
focused on RRCs

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

5.6 Collateral consequences and
barriers to reintegration

N/A

review federal collateral
consequence laws
allow Pell grants for
incarcerated persons
eliminate executive branch
criminal history disclosure on
employment applications for
federal contractors
codify criminal history
disclosure changes for federal
employees and contractors

◼
◼
◼

◼

TABLE A.6

Reinvesting Savings to support the Expansion of Necessary Programs, Supervision, and Treatment
CCTF recommendations
6.1 Resources for reform

First Step
◼

◼

6.2 Develop recommendations for
reinvesting savings from the
reduced BOP population

◼

Gaps/remaining next steps

funds BOP to implement
validated risk and needs
assessment tool, catalog current
program offerings and capacity,
and expand necessary programs
and treatment
authorizes $75 million, 80
percent for BOP
implementation

◼

reinvests savings into BOP
programming; requires broader
reinvestment strategy in required
attorney general report

N/A

◼
◼
◼

fund US Probation to increase
staffing, programs, and
services
fund courts to establish the
Second Look function
fund USSC to expand capacity
and training
fund DOJ Office of Justice
programs to incentivize frontend diversion programs,
problem-solving courts, and
other alternatives to
incarceration

Notes
1

The primary purposes of sentencing in the federal system are deterrence, incapacitation, just punishment, and
rehabilitation (Sentencing Reform Act of 1984).

2

An apparent drafting error has delayed the implementation of the revised calculation for good time credits. The
effective date is tied to the release of the risk and needs assessment system, which is statutorily required in July
2019, but could be delayed.

3

“CJ-TRAK,” Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence, 2014, https://www.gmuace.org/tools/assesscapacity; “Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) Simulation Tool,” Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence,
2011, https://www.gmuace.org/research_rnr.html.

4

$75 million a year for FY 2019 through FY 2023, with 80 percent reserved for use by the Director of the Bureau
of Prisons.

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

15

5

“Department of Justice Announces First Step Act Implementation Progress,” Office of Public Affairs,
Department of Justice, press release no. 19-338, April 8, 2019, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/departmentjustice-announces-first-step-act-implementation-progress.

6

The law excludes people from earning credits based on their offense of conviction. The long list of exclusions
includes people convicted of certain fentanyl, heroin or methamphetamine trafficking offenses, sex offenses,
certain gun offenses, violent offenses, and terrorism.

References
Andrews, D. A., and J. Bonta. 2002. The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. 3rd ed. Cincinnati, OH:
Anderson.
Andrews, D. A., I. Zinger, R. D. Hoge, J. Bonta, P. Gendreau, and F. T. Cullen. 1990. “Does
Correctional Treatment Work? A Clinically-Relevant and Psychologically Informed Metaanalysis.”
Criminology 28: 369–404.
Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections (CCTF). 2016. Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives. Washington,
DC: Urban Institute.
Department of Justice (DOJ). 2019. Federal Prison System: FY 2020 Performance Budget Congressional Submission.
Washington, DC: US Department of Justice. https://www.justice.gov/jmd/page/file/1144626/download.
James, Nathan. 2014. The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options.
Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42937.pdf.
Lipsey, M., N. Landenberger, and S. Wilson. 2007. Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Programs for Criminal Offenders.
Oslo: The Campbell Collaboration.
Lowenkamp, Christopher T., and Edward J. Latessa. 2002. Evaluation of Ohio’s Community-Based Correctional
Facilities and Halfway House Programs Final Report. Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati.
Pelissier, Bernadette, William Rhodes, William Saylor, Gerald G. Gaes, Scott D. Camp, Suzy D. Vanyur, and Sue
Wallace. 2001. “Triad Drug Treatment Evaluation Project.” Federal Probation 65 (3): 3–7.
Saylor, W. G., and G. G. Gaes. 1994. Post-Release Employment Project (PREP) Study Links Federal Prison Industries
(UNICOR) Work Experience with Successful Post-Release Outcome. Washington, DC: DOJ/BOP Office of Research
and Evaluation.
US Sentencing Commission (USSC). 2011. Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal
Justice System. Washington, DC: US Sentencing Commission. https://www.ussc.gov/research/congressionalreports/2011-report-congress-mandatory-minimum-penalties-federal-criminal-justice-system.
———. 2017. Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders. Washington, DC: US Sentencing Commission.
https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/recidivism-among-federal-drug-trafficking-offenders.
———. 2019. Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary S. 756, The First Step Act of 2018 (as enacted on December
21, 2018). Washington, DC: US Sentencing Commission. https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/researchand-publications/prison-and-sentencing-impact-assessments/January_2019_Impact_Analysis.pdf.

16

NEXT STEPS IN FEDERA L CORRECTIONS REFORM

About the Authors
Julie Samuels is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute with extensive
knowledge of the federal criminal justice system. At Urban, she examines issues related to growth in the
federal prison system, federal justice case processing trends, and sentencing and corrections reform.
Nancy G. La Vigne is vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute. She manages a staff of more
than 50 scholars and conducts her own research on policing, criminal justice technologies, and reentry
from incarceration.
Chelsea Thomson is director of center operations in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute,
where she provides research and operational support. As a researcher, Thomson focuses on criminal
justice reform and is the project director for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Acknowledgments
This brief was supported by Arnold Ventures. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make
it possible for Urban to advance its mission.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute,
its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and
recommendations of Urban experts. Further information on the Urban Institute’s funding principles is
available at urban.org/fundingprinciples.

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