Despite the First Step Act, some federal inmates remain in prison for additional months

The Trump-era First Step Act allowed thousands of nonviolent federal offenders to leave prison early, but its advocates say they have reviewed many cases of inmates staying behind bars longer than they should be, which raises questions about persistent failures in its implementation.

Sreedhar Potarazu, a former federal inmate who sued his Maryland prison in 2022 over the calculation of his so-called earned time credits under the First Step Act, used his extensive knowledge of the law to help inmates determine the exact dates they should be detained. Released from prison, usually to a halfway house or home detention, until their sentence is completed.

In nine cases reviewed by Potarazu and shared with NBC News, inmates were incarcerated between two and eight months after their “last appointment inside,” a term he said refers to when an inmate can technically be transferred out of prison to pre-release custody because I have accumulated sufficient time credits through my participation in rehabilitation and work programs and drug and alcohol counseling.

“Even a longer life is an injustice,” Potarazu said, adding: “The taxpayer should care because they are the ones paying the bill.” There may be no one in there, but you’re still paying for it.

Walter Pavlo, president of the consulting firm Prisonology LLC, whose experts include former Federal Bureau of Prisons case managers, wardens and sentencing IT professionals, said he regularly sees cases from inmates who remained in prison beyond the date they should have been moved, with an underlying problem appearing to be a lack of halfway house capacity.

Nationwide, the BOP says it contracts with about 160 transitional centers offering more than 10,000 beds, although it’s unclear how often they are at maximum capacity and whether they can offer a additional space.

More than 8,200 inmates are in halfway houses, according to the agency.

In response to a question about whether the BOP tracks the number of inmates who may be incarcerated longer due to delays in their transfer, the agency said Thursday that such information is not collected.

“Every effort is made to review and adjust available resources within the community so that individuals can utilize” the time credits, the BOP said.

The agency added that it “makes every effort to place individuals eligible for release under the Step One Act” but that “some areas, particularly populated urban areas, are experiencing capacity issues “.

Pavlo said he has also seen this anecdotally.

“I have families calling halfway houses every day asking when there will be space,” he said. “What’s frustrating is that it’s so disconcerted.”

The First Step Act, a bipartisan law signed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, was activated to give “minimum risk” or “low risk” offenders the opportunity to receive shortened sentences. Supporters believe the law can reduce harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism and help reduce the prison population, while reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

More than 144,000 people are in BOP custody, a number that has generally declined over the decades, according to bureau data. The agency says more than 33,500 inmates eligible under the First Step Act have been released.

But as the law has been implemented over the years, concerns have grown about whether time credits are properly added up and applied as case managers record the information. In 2022, as the BOP refined the time credit program, a new computer application was launched to automatically calculate these credits, although it initially suffered from a technical problem.

The BOP said Thursday that “credits are calculated as required by the First Step Act.”

Pavlo said the issue now goes beyond calculating time credits and involves the agency’s responsibility to secure inmates a place outside of prison or on home detention as part of their detention before their release.

The First Step Act mandates the BOP director “to ensure that there is sufficient pre-release detention capacity to accommodate all eligible prisoners.”

In a 2023 annual report, the agency said it was still “too early to assess the savings resulting from implementation” of the law, and that the BOP remained “responsible for the costs associated with transferring people from ‘an institution’ to a halfway house. or confinement at home.

“The BOP has no cost savings to report based on an early transfer to pretrial detention at this time,” the report states.

Data published in the Federal Register in September shows it costs $116.91 per day to house a federal inmate, compared to $107.39 per day in a halfway house. The cost of home confinement monitoring was approximately $55.26 per day in fiscal year 2020.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said additional savings are realized when an inmate who has completed First Step Act programs is rehabilitated finds work through transitional housing and, ultimately, does not return to prison.

“I always refer to the First Step Act as criminal justice lite,” Trone said. “We need to make real savings and give people a real second chance. We have not implemented the First Step Act properly.”

Ames Grawert, a senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice who studied law, said it wouldn’t be surprising if inmates weren’t released into homes as soon as they should be because of their capacity — but it’s up to Congress to do it. ensure the BOP has the funding necessary to implement the First Step Act and that the infrastructure is in place.

“Implementation is always a challenge in any law, especially when it is a system as complex and with as many problems as the Bureau of Prisons,” Grawert said. “That doesn’t mean people made mistakes in drafting the bill, it just means that tracking is really, really hard to do.”

Potarazu, an eye surgeon, said he was sentenced to at least four more months in prison on financial fraud-related charges after being transferred to a halfway house in 2023 under the First Step Act.

He first filed a motion in 2022 asking that his time credits be accurately calculated, and a federal judge in Baltimore finally ruled on his case on Wednesday. The case was dismissed without prejudice after the judge ruled his case was “moot” because Potarazu was no longer in BOP custody.

But, Potarazu said, it was validated after the judge wrote that “the BOP admits that the time credits earned by petitioner were repeatedly miscalculated.”

The agency declined to comment on the decision Thursday.

Potarazu said he ultimately wants to see others like him released when the BOP is legally obligated to do so, and that prisoners should not have to assume they are going to stay behind bars longer than they should not and go to the end of litigation which can take years.

“Even if you have the foresight to do it, you’re still trapped,” he said.

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