First Step Act

The First Step Act permits federal inmates to earn additional time off their sentences by participating in specific in-prison programs. These First Step Act earned time credits can amount to a significant amount of additional good conduct time.

Contact us at the Zoukis Consulting Group if you are interested in learning how to maximize First Step Act time credits. Our team can help you develop a plan to secure an early release from federal prison. Book a one-hour initial consultation today!

First Step Act

First Step Act: An Overview

The First Step Act (FSA) permits eligible inmates to earn additional time off their sentence for participating in and completing approved Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction programs. Briefly, for every 30 days of qualifying programming activities, inmates can earn ten days off their sentence. After two six-month risk and needs assessment review periods, this increases to 15 days off per 30 days of qualifying programming activities.

First Step Act earned time credits are a newer way for inmates to secure an early release from federal prison. The First Step Act was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump on December 21, 2018, bringing many positive changes to federal prisons.

Chief amongst these changes is the FSA earned time credits. As outlined in the FSA, prisoners can earn time credits for participating in productive activities or Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Programs (EBRR).

After accruing 30 days of qualifying programming activities, eligible inmates earn 10 to 15 days off their sentence. These credits act much the same way as regular good conduct time, but inmates can add to it instead of receiving the prorated 15 percent sentence reduction for good conduct. These time credits speed up the inmate’s projected release date.

Please note that these earned time credits are only recognized if an inmate is already convicted. Any activities during the pre-trial period do not count towards First Step Act time credits.

Who is Eligible for Earning First Step Act Time Credits?

The First Step Act time credits program is still developing. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has been particularly slow in developing the program and implementing it.

In a nutshell, eligible federal inmates may earn additional time credits by participating in Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Programs and productive activities. While each is discussed below, it’s essential to understand who qualifies for these credits.

Additional Good Time Credit Eligibility

To qualify for the additional First Step Act time credits, federal inmates must 1) be convicted under the U.S. Code (i.e., a federal offense), 2) not be convicted of a disqualifying offense, 3) participate in qualifying recidivism reduction programs or productive activities as defined by the Bureau of Prisons, and 4) be deemed minimum- or low-risk per the Bureau’s PATTERN risk assessment system.

Currently, more than half of federal inmates do not qualify for additional time credits. The First Step Act earned time credits program is primarily available to inmates convicted of non-violent offenses.

Benefits for Inmates Who Don’t Qualify

On the other hand, most violent offenses automatically disqualify an offender. For instance, homicide, habitual domestic abuse, and terrorism offenses automatically disqualify the offender. This Bureau of Prisons presents a complete list of disqualifying offenses (see below).

Please note that disqualifying offenses are not always necessarily violent. For example, if an inmate is found in possession or transmission of contraband, they may not qualify for these time credits. Most other non-violent offenders are eligible to earn the FSA time credits.

Disqualified Inmates and First Step Act Time Credits

If inmates receive a medium or high PATTERN risk score, they can still earn benefits, but typically not time credits. These benefits potentially include:

  • Increased Phone Minutes
  • Greater Access to Visitation
  • Expanded Commissary Spending Limits

With this being said, federal prison wardens are permitted to award time credits under the First Step Act for medium- and high-risk inmates. This requires the warden to determine the following:

  • The inmate does not pose a danger to the community.
  • The inmate is unlikely to recidivate.
  • The inmate has made a good faith effort to lower their recidivism through First Step Act qualified programs.

This alternative path to earning FSA time credits is critical considering the state of the U.S. Department of Justice. While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the elimination of true mandatory minimum sentencing are steps in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. If our society really wants to reduce prison populations, we must expand First Step Act eligibility.

First Step Act Earned Time Credits

What Types of Programs Can Prisoners Participate in to Earn Time Credits?

The Federal Bureau of Prisons divides applicable First Step Act programs into two categories: Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Programs (EBBR) and Productive Activities. Both of these categories allow inmates to earn additional time off their sentences.

The key to earning these additional time credits is securing and continuing enrollment in qualifying programs. The Bureau has published the FIRST STEP ACT Approved Programs Guide (July 2021). This Guide presents all qualifying First Step Act programs and lists which institutions offer them.

All the programs classified as EBRR have been pre-approved by the BOP. The inmate should have been directly assigned to a program after a needs assessment to start earning credits. Faith-based classes and programs may also be classified as EBRR programs or productive activities as long as the BOP approves them.

While the Bureau’s Approved Programs Guide should be referenced, the following categories of classes and programs generally qualify for additional time credits:

  • Anger Management
  • Asserting Yourself for Female Offenders
  • Basic Cognitive Skills
  • BRAVE Program
  • Bureau Literacy Program (i.e., GED)
  • Challenge Program
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Criminal Thinking
  • Dialectic Behavior Therapy
  • Emotional Self-Regulation
  • Federal Prison Industries (i.e., UNICOR)
  • Female Integrated Treatment (FIT)
  • Foundation Program
  • Illness Management & Recovery
  • Life Connections Program
  • Mental Health Step-Down Program
  • National Parenting from Prison Program
  • Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program
  • Occupational Education Program
  • Post-Secondary Education
  • Residential Drug Abuse Treatment
  • Resolve Program
  • Seeking Safety
  • Sex Offender Treatment Program (Non-Residential)
  • Sex Offender Treatment Program (Residential)
  • Skills Program
  • Social skills Training
  • STAGES Program
  • Threshold Program

When Can Inmates Earn Time Credits?

First Step Act earned time credits can only be earned while in Bureau custody. Any qualifying program participation while in county jail, a federal detention center, or pre-trial home confinement does not qualify for time reductions.

The technical start date for these credits was January 15, 2020. As such, any programs participated in or completed after this date qualify for credit. Programs completed before this date do not qualify.

How Do the FSA Earned Time Credits Help with Early Release from Federal Prison?

The First Step Act allows inmates to earn time credits. These time credits can be applied in two ways:

  • Direct prison time credits.
  • Allow prisoners to be released into halfway houses, home confinement, or supervised release sooner than otherwise allowable.

Supervised release is limited to the final year of an inmate’s sentence. However, inmates can still use their credits to transfer to pre-release custody earlier.

Before early release or transfer to a pre-lease facility, inmates must:

  • Have earned time credits equal to the time left in their sentence
  • Show a reduced recidivism risk 
Good Time Credit First Step Act

First Step Act FAQs

Can a Federal Inmate Lose the FSA Credits?

Federal inmates can lose good time credits from the First Step Act time. Likewise, they can have lost First Step Act time credits restored.

If an inmate violates the Inmate Discipline Program, they risk losing additional earned First Step Act time credits. Keep in mind that this applies to both earned First Step Act time credits and regular good conduct time.

While the Bureau is permitted to restore lost First Step Act time credits, it has not yet developed the required policy governing this credit restoration.

How the First Step Act Changed Regular Good Conduct Time

While the current good conduct time credit scheme has been in place since 1987, the new First Step Act did bring some changes to these credits.

First Step Act Good Time Credits are awarded on the inmate’s first day in custody. These credits apply an effective 15 percent sentence reduction. This credit is for projected future good conduct in prison.

All inmates serving a sentence of 12 months and one day or more are awarded this credit. Of course, inmates found guilty of serious prison misconduct can lose this projected good conduct time.

The First Step Act changed how regular good conduct time credits are applied. Before the First Step Act, the Bureau determined the time served amount to be actual time served, not the entire sentence. After the First Step Act, the Bureau is now required to base these projected good conduct time determinations based on the whole sentence imposed, not the actual amount of time served.

So, while inmates previously received 47 days of good conduct time per year, they now receive 54 days of good conduct time per year of the sentence imposed.

Please note that this change was made retroactive. As such, inmates incarcerated before the First Step Act’s passage receive an additional seven days of good conduct time for past years served in Bureau custody.

What’s the Difference Between Earned Time Credits and Good Time Credits?

Both types of credit are beneficial to federal inmates, but there are noticeable differences.

For example, regular good conduct time credits apply to all eligible inmates, which is broadly applied to all inmates except those who have a sentence of fewer than 12 months and a day. Federal inmates don’t need to apply or do anything else for these credits. They are automatically applied.

Additional First Step Act earned time credits are in addition to regular good conduct time credits. Inmates earn these credits by participating in approved First Step Act programs.

So, think of regular good conduct time credits as automatic, while earned time credits from the First Step Act require participation in specific classes, programs, and other activities.

Can Deportable Aliens Earn Time Credits?

While many believe that deportable aliens cannot secure an early release from federal prison, this is not true. Deportable aliens can earn additional time credits under the First Step Act. They are only restricted from expanded halfway house credit.

Get Help with the First Step Act Time Credit for Earlier Release from Prison

The First Step Act’s implementation is still progressing, and changes are occurring fairly frequently. As time goes by, we believe that a broader scope of inmates will become eligible to participate.

Our team stands ready to aid you in determining if you or a loved one will qualify for First Step Act time credits. Likewise, we regularly assist clients in maximizing their benefits under the First Step Act. This can be a cumbersome endeavor considering the Bureau’s limited program capacity and duration. Regardless, we have aided many clients in maximizing their First Step Act time reduction credits.

Please book a one-hour initial consultation to discuss your needs and how we can help. During the call, we’ll discuss all options for early release from federal prison, including CARES Act home confinement and compassionate release.

First Step Act Disqualifying Offenses

Federal law and the Federal Bureau of Prisons present a long list of disqualifying offenses. This list is presented in the below tables.

Federal Drug CrimesU.S. Code Section
Trafficking or importing heroin if the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)); 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)
Trafficking or importing fentanyl21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1); 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)
Trafficking or importing a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl if the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1); 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)
Trafficking or importing a mixture containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine if the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense21 U.S.C. § 841 (b)(1)); 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)
Manufacturing or distributing drugs when death or serious bodily injury results from the use of those drugs21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), (B), or (C)
Federal Violent CrimesU.S. Code Section
Unlawful possession or use of a firearm during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime18 U.S.C. 924(c))
Arson18 U.S.C. § 81
Assault, resistance, or impediment of a police officer with a deadly weapon or resulting in bodily injury18 U.S.C. § 111(b)
Assault with intent to murder or murder of a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner by strangling or suffocating18 U.S.C. § 113(a)
Assault with intent to commit murder18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(1)
Influencing, impeding, retaliating against a federal officer by injuring a family member (except for a threat)18 U.S.C. § 115
Female genital mutilation18 U.S.C. § 116
Domestic assault by a habitual offender18 U.S.C. § 117
Explosives or dangerous articles (except for § 836 offenses involving the transportation of fireworks into a state that prohibits their sale or use)Chapter 39, U.S. Code
Use of fire or explosives18 U.S.C. §§ 844(f)(3), (h), or (i)
Murder (except for manslaughter (18 U.S.C. § 1112), attempt to commit manslaughter (18 U.S.C. § 1113), misconduct or neglect of ship officers (18 U.S.C. § 1115), protection against HIV (18 U.S.C. § 1122))18 U.S.C., Chapter 51
Kidnaping18 U.S.C., Chapter 55
Intentionally killing or attempting to kill an unborn child18 U.S.C. § 1841(a)(2)(C)
Bank robbery resulting in death18 U.S.C. § 2113(e)
Robberies or burglaries involving controlled substances resulting in assault or use of a dangerous weapon18 U.S.C. § 2118(c)
Robberies or burglaries involving drugs which result in a death18 U.S.C. § 2118(c)(2)
Carjacking18 U.S.C. § 2119
Destroying a vessel or port, if it involved a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury18 U.S.C. § 2291
Robbery or burglary involving controlled substances resulting in death18 U.S.C. § 2118(c)(2)
Torture18 U.S.C. § 2340A
Drive-by shooting18 U.S.C. § 36
Murder, manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, assault with intent to commit murder, assault with intent to commit rape, aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, abusive sexual contact, kidnapping, aircraft piracy, robbery, carjacking, extortion, arson, firearm use, firearm possession during a drug offense or crime of violence, and attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of these offenses; AND

The person was sentenced to a year or more in prison for this conviction; AND

The person has a prior state or federal conviction for murder, voluntary manslaughter, assault with intent to commit murder, aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, abusive sexual contact, kidnapping, carjacking, arson, or terrorism, for which the person served a year or more in prison.
18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)(2)(F)
Federal Sex CrimesU.S. Code Section
Receipt or distribution of child pornography18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(1), (2), or (3)
Possession, distribution, or sale of child pornography18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)
Sexual abuse (except for those convicted under any provision of § 2244 other than subsection (c))18 U.S.C., Chapter 109A
Failure to register as a sex offender18 U.S.C. § 2250
Sexual exploitation of children18 U.S.C. § 2251
Selling or buying children18 U.S.C. § 2251A
Producing child pornography for importation18 U.S.C. § 2260
Federal Immigration CrimesU.S. Code Section
Illegal reentry of certain removed aliens listed (e.g., the person has a prior conviction for a felony, an aggravated felony, or more misdemeanor drug or person crimes)8 U.S.C. §§ 1326(b)(1) and (2)
Aiding or assisting certain aliens to enter the united states8 U.S.C. § 1327
Importation of an alien for immoral purpose8 U.S.C. § 1328
Noncitizens facing deportation or removal from the United States
Federal Terrorism OffensesU.S. Code Section
Biological weapons18 U.S.C., Chapter 10
Chemical weapons18 U.S.C., Chapter 11B
Distribution of information relating to weapons of mass destruction18 U.S.C. § 842(p)
Terrorist attacks against railways or mass transportation systems18 U.S.C. § 1992
Transportation of explosive, biological, radioactive, chemical, or nuclear materials18 U.S.C. § 2283
Transportation of terrorists18 U.S.C. § 2284
Terrorism18 U.S.C. Chapter 113B
Federal Crimes Regarding Nuclear Weapons and InformationU.S. Code Section
Developing or producing nuclear material42 U.S.C. § 2077(b)
Atomic weapons offenses42 U.S.C. § 2122
Atomic energy license violations42 U.S.C. § 2131
Communication or receipt of restricted atomic data42 U.S.C. §§ 2274, 2275
Sabotage of nuclear facilities or fuel42 U.S.C. § 2284
Federal Crimes Regarding Protected InformationU.S. Code Section
Gathering, transmitting, losing defense information18 U.S.C. § 793
Gathering or delivering defense information to aid a foreign government18 U.S.C. § 794
Disclosing identities of undercover agents, informants, sources50 U.S.C. § 3121
Federal Prison OffensesU.S. Code Section
Rioting or mutiny in federal prison18 U.S.C. § 1792
Escape or attempt to escape from prison18 U.S.C. § 751
Providing or possessing contraband in prison18 U.S.C. § 1791
Federal Crimes Against the President or Other Government OfficialsU.S. Code Section
Assassination, kidnapping, or assault of a congressional, cabinet, or Supreme Court member18 U.S.C. § 351
Assault, kidnapping, or assassination of the President or presidential staff18 U.S.C. § 1751
Treason18 U.S.C. § 2381
Threats against the President18 U.S.C. § 871
Threats against former Presidents18 U.S.C. § 879
Status-Based Offenses
District of Columbia offenders housed in federal prisons
State offenders housed in federal prisons
People serving life sentences
War CrimesU.S. Code Section
Recruiting or using child soldiers18 U.S.C. § 2442
Genocide18 U.S.C. § 1091
Other Federal CrimeU.S. Code Section
Felony committed while in a criminal street gang18 U.S.C. § 521
Computer fraud18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(1)
Human trafficking and slavery (except for sections 1593 through 1596)18 U.S.C., Chapter 77
Sabotage (except for § 2152)18 U.S.C., Chapter 105
Damaging or destroying a pipeline facility, if the conduct involved a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury49 U.S.C. § 60123(b)
Export violations50 U.S.C. App. 4611 et seq.
International Emergency Economic Powers Act50 U.S.C. § 1705
Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities18 U.S.C. § 32
Destruction of motor vehicles or motor vehicle facilities18 U.S.C. § 33