Sentence Reductions Under the First Step Act

In 2018, Congress passed the reformative First Step Act, commonly called the FSA.  One of the FSA’s reforms allows certain inmates to receive greater reductions for good behavior than was previously possible.  This posts examines the FSA’s changes to earned time credit.


For many decades, inmates showing progress towards rehabilitation could serve part of their sentences outside of prison on parole.  However, in 1987, Congress eliminated parole.  With parole abolished, the only sentence reduction available for most inmates was a modest 15% for good behavior. This reduction, defined as “good time credit,” reduce 15% of a prison sentence. That’s a 54 day reduction for every year served in prison.

The 15% system offered had a major issue, namely that it provided little distinction for inmates truly working towards rehabilitation.  That’s because as long as an inmate was simply following the rules without causing problems, they would earn the maximum 15% reduction. Inmates who made exceptional efforts at rehabilitation got the same reduction as those who made the minimum effort.

The First Step Act attempted to remedy this situation by giving extra incentive for inmates to participate in worthwhile programs.

Different from “good time credit”

It is important to note that “good time credit” is not the same as time credits earned through these FSA programs. “Good time credit” reduces the length of the overall sentence, while time credits earned through the FSA allows inmates to potentially serve their sentences in less restrictive environments.  For example, an inmate who has earned time credit through the FSA programming may be eligible for an earlier transfer to a halfway home or supervised release.  Inmates seeking earlier release may also be interested in “compassionate release,” a possibility determined on a case-by-case basis.

Earning Time Credit

Time credit can be earned through participation in recidivism reduction programs.  This includes programs like occupational training, mental or substance abuse treatment, and education.  Even participation in some faith-based programming may qualify. Programs vary widely in length and required participation, with longer and more involved programs usually awarding more time credits.

Medium and high risk inmates get priority for these recidivism reduction programs, and program availability varies by prison location.  The federal Bureau of Prisons is currently working to identify eligible inmates, and to assign them to appropriate program.  This process is estimated to be completed by January 2022.

Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Need (PATTERN)

The PATTERN tool is the mechanism the Bureau of Prisons will use to assess all inmates and assign them to recidivism reduction programs.  PATTERN predicts inmates’ potential recidivism chances through consideration of the inmate’s static factors and dynamic factors. Static factors include the inmates gender and age at conviction.  Dynamic factors include the inmate’s behavior record while in prisons, participation in classes and programming, and financial management.

Criticisms of opaqueness and the potential for inherent biases led the Department of Justice to modify PATTERN in early 2020.  These modifications include providing more weight when measuring inmates’ good behavior and removing some aspects of age-based considerations.  The Department of Justice will also begin publishing data on recidivism as part of the effort to increase PATTERN’s transparency.

Development and implementation of PATTERN is ongoing. In February 2020, the Department of Justice solicited community feedback on the recent PATTERN modifications. Further changes to PATTERN could be coming to PATTERN as the Department of Justice evaluates the feedback.

Exclusions from Earned Time Credit

While all inmates are eligible for “good time credit,” not all inmates are eligible to accrue earned time credit under the FSA. Certain convictions will exclude an inmate.  Many of the exclusions are for exotic offenses crimes, such as recruiting child soldiers or treason.  Also excluded, however, are some commonly prosecuted offenses, such as use of a firearm in connection with a crime of violence or drug trafficking offenses.

Earned time credits can also be taken away if an inmate breaks the rules.  It is possible, however, to have those credits restored. An inmate must show improvement and progress to earn back lost time credits.

Inmates who are eligible to earn time credit through the FSA may nonetheless benefit from participation in programming, as they may earn benefits such as additional phone time or be permitted more visits.


While eligibility is limited, the FSA provides new opportunities for inmates to move into less supervised settings and earn additional benefits.  If you have additional questions please contact us.

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