The First Step Act: An analysis

Used with permission

By Brandon Sample . . . On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the bipartisan First Step Act of 2018. The Law Office of Brandon Sample has assembled this detailed analysis of the First Step Act to help the public understand the ins and outs of the bill. If you are looking for a quick answer to your questions about the First Step Act, we suggest you revisit our prior articles.

We want to be crystal clear about our position: the FIRST STEP Act is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There will be thousands of inmates who are largely ineligible to benefit from many of the reforms contained in this law. But the legislation is, by its name, a FIRST STEP.

Since the FIRST STEP Act is broken out into six separate titles, we will break down the bill using that same organization. We are going to change it up and start from the end and work our way back towards Title I of the bill. If you would like to print a copy of this article for your loved one in prison, you may do so at this link: Law Office of Brandon Sample First Step Analysis.

Section 601. Placement of prisoners close to families.

Under current law, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) essentially has unlimited discretion to decide which prison to send inmates to for service of their sentence. For instance, criminal defendants sentenced in Miami, Florida are often routinely sent to serve lengthy sentences as far away as California.

The FIRST STEP Act works to address family separation caused by imprisonment. Under the Section 601 of the bill, the BOP will now be required to “place the prisoner in a facility as close as practicable to the prisoner’s primary residence,” and to the extent possible within 500 driving miles of the inmate’s home.

Further, inmates already in BOP prisons will be given the opportunity to decide if they want to stay at their current facility or transfer to another prison closer to the inmate’s home. This is true even if the inmate is already within 500 driving miles of their primary residence.

However, the FIRST STEP Act still provides some caveats to the “place inmates no further than 500 miles from home” rule. Placement of an inmate will still be subject to that inmate’s “security designation,” medical needs, bed availability and other security concerns of the BOP.

“Security designation,” is just a different way of saying whether an inmate is eligible to go to a medium security, low security, or high security prison based on factors evaluated by the BOP (more on that below).

These are all separate reasons the BOP can still rely on to place an inmate further than 500 driving miles from the inmate’s primary residence. We anticipate that BOP will try to rely on the “other security concerns” catch-all in most cases when denying requests to transfer closer to home.

One glaring weakness in the FIRST STEP Act is that although it says BOP “shall” send inmates as close as practicable to their home, it also specifically provides that no court can review BOP’s placement decision. We believe this is a significant potential problem since inmates will have no way to challenge BOP’s decisions except through the BOP’s administrative remedy program.

At rock bottom, however, the FIRST STEP Act will allow thousands of families to be within traveling distance of their loved ones who are in prison. On this point, the FIRST STEP Act is a good initial change in the right direction.

Read the remainder of the detailed analysis here at


Written by 

This post was written by someone, or multiple people, within NARSOL.