The recidivism rate for people released under the 2018 federal First Step Act (FSA) is about 37% lower than similarly situated people released before the law was enacted, says a new analysis issued by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice.
The law was designed to reduce reoffending among people leaving federal prisons. Nearly 30,000 inmates were released from federal facilities under the FSA from 2020 to January 2023.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) defines recidivism as any rearrest or return to federal prison for a new crime or technical violation of supervision, regardless of the outcome of that arrest (whether a person is charged or convicted).
The recidivism rate for all people released under the FSA is 12.4%. While that is considerably lower than the 46.2% recidivism rate for all people released from BOP facilities in 2018 those numbers are not comparable because those released under First Step differ in important ways from all prisoners released, including their assessed risk level and the length of time they have been out of prison.
The council's analysis estimates recidivism among people released before the FSA who are similar to people released under the law in two key ways: they had a similar risk assessment classification and they had been released to the community for a similar amount of time.
With a recidivism rate of 12.4%, the 29,946 people released under the FSA over three years could have accounted for between 3,712 and 4,330 arrests over three years. With an estimated recidivism rate of 19.8%, an equal number of similarly situated people released prior to the FSA could have accounted for between 5,918 and 7,455 arrests over three years.
Taken together, these estimates suggest that people released under the FSA could have accounted for between 2,207 and 3,125 fewer arrests over three years when compared with similarly situated people who were released from federal prisons prior to the FSA.
About 54% of the inmates released under the FSA completed at least one evidence-based recidivism reduction program
The council's analysis says, "It is possible that these programs successfully reduced recidivism among participants. It is also possible that people with the most motivation for post-release success were more likely to complete these programs and therefore may have had lower rates of recidivism regardless of program participation."
Implementation of the programs was slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. I is unlikely that the direct causal impact of FSA programming would account for a 37% reduction, the council says.
The analysis was written by Avinash Bhati, the founder and CEO of Maxarth LLC, a data science company.