The First Step Act
The First Step Act is the first meaningful criminal justice reform in many years. One of the main pillars of the new criminal justice law is to be sure that that the Bureau of Prisons truly understands each and every inmate’s treatment and programming needs and accurately evaluates each inmate’s level of risk. Indeed, the First Step Act is premised on the idea that each federal inmate should be seen as an individual, rather than just as a number.
To that end, the First Step Act requires that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) identify both the risks posed by an inmate, as well as the needs (such as education training or addiction treatment) he or she has. With that information, the BOP would then be better able to identify inmates who may be eligible for early release or a sentence reduction, as well as pre-release custody, recidivism reduction, and job placement programs.
This assessment will also also help direct those inmates with particular needs to the programs that would best address those needs. In fact, the BOP recently released a 102-page book to describe the development and implementation of its new PATTERN risk and needs assessment tool. This blog will take a moment to summarize the main points of that book.
Goals of the BOP’s New Pattern Risk and Needs Assessment System
The First Step Act made the creation of a “risk and needs assessment system” a requirement and mandated that the system must be used to do the following:
1. Determine recidivism risk of each inmate at intake classifying them as having a low, medium, or high risk of recidivism.
2. Assess and determine the risk of violent or serious misconduct of each inmate.
3. Determine the amount and type of evidence-based recidivism reduction programming needed for each inmate.
4. Reassess inmates for recidivism risk periodically.
5. Reassign inmate to programs or activities based on reassessment of risk.
6. Determine when to provide incentives and rewards for participation in programs or activities.
7. Determine when an inmate is ready to move to pre-release custody or supervised release.
8. Determine if an inmate needs assistance in program courses, to accommodate issues such as dyslexia.
Using these tools, the BOP will then have a more comprehensive knowledge of the needs and the risks that inmates pose. This will make it possible for the BOP to make appropriate decisions on housing, appropriate treatment programs and activities, and to calculate opportunities for credits and early release. The AG and an Independent Review Committee are responsible for overseeing the new risk and needs assessment system.
What Makes a Risk and Needs Assessment System Effective?
- Dynamic individualized assessment – Some factors in an inmate’s life are static, not changeable, such as the inmate’s age, offense, and criminal history. However, an inmate’s behavior and other characteristics change over time during his or her incarceration. Accordingly, dynamic variables should be assessed to ensure that an inmate is progressing with treatment, or is not entering into crisis.
- Periodic re-validation and update – Not only should inmates be reassessed periodically, but also any strong risk and needs assessment system should be reassessed from time to time to ensure that it is still addressing the core principles of why there is a risk and needs assessment system in the first place.
- Racial and Ethnic Neutrality – There can be no question that an effective risk and needs assessment tool must show no bias. That means that race and ethnicity play no part in the process of assessing inmates. Fairness and equality demand nothing less.
- Assessment of Criminogenic Needs – As a threshold matter, “criminogenic needs” are characteristics, traits, or issues of an individual that directly relate to an individual’s likelihood of committing another crime. Accordingly, a system that attempts to determine the level of risk that an inmate poses at any given time must be able to identify and weigh the various criminogenic factors for each inmate.
PATTERN – The Risk and Needs Assessment Tool that the Bureau of Prisons Developed Following the First Step Act
The BOP created the risk and needs assessment tool, titled the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs – abbreviated as “PATTERN” – to satisfy the First Step Act’s mandate. In fact, the risk and needs assessment tool, PATTERN, is one of the most robust measures the BOP has taken to implement the First Step Act. Specifically, according to the Department of Justice, PATTERN “will be used to assess all federal inmates for risk and identify criminogenic needs that can be addressed by evidence-based programs, such as drug treatment, job training, and education.”
PATTERN, as a predictive tool, is designed to predict the likelihood of general and violent recidivism for all inmates. As a risk and needs assessment tool, PATTERN contains certain static risk factors, such as age and offense committed; and dynamic factors, such as participation or lack of participation in education and drug treatment programs.
What Is Being Done to Implement PATTERN?
Now that the sophisticated PATTERN tool has been created, there is now a 45-day public study period – which began on the release of PATTERN on July 20, 2019. As the name suggests, the public will have 45 days to review the system and recommend improvements. After the study period, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will invite all types of stakeholders, such as public interest organizations, to discuss any and all input and feedback. The BOP will then review the feedback and make any adjustments to PATTERN that are necessary and appropriate.
Once the PATTERN system is refined and updated based on the feedback, BOP staff will be trained on implementing the PATTERN system. Finally, the BOP will then roll out the system and begin to test each inmate using the tool.
To conclude, the PATTERN development cycle was as follows:
- Implement enhanced dyslexia screening
- Engage an outside research partner
- Conduct research and issue an RFI (request for information)
- Hold a needs assessment meeting
- Convene a BOP symposium
- Review the current assessment tool (called BRAVO)
- Develop PATTERN – the new needs tool
- Pilot the new needs tool
- Execute PATTERN
- Train all BOP staff
The First Step Act appears to have sparked a renaissance of sorts with regard to our federal penal system. The clear energy behind implementing the First Step Act seems to be changing the way the country views the purpose of corrections facilities. The creation of the PATTERN risk and needs assessment tool was mandated by the First Step Act. Yet, it also seems to have started a trend in truly helping federal inmates and the facilities in which they are housed. We hope the trend continues.
One thing that is important to note is that this study is not the last word on this. Additional studies, program statements and programming are still due to come out. I think that this paper was simply the “top-level” view of the program. This wasn’t them getting “into the weeds” on this or describing what sort of programming they are offering.
Like you, I am less concerned with how they “solved for x” in developing PATTERN and more interested in how y’all can benefit from the program and hopefully get out of prison earlier. To that end, the following is on page 14 of the study:
“For example, eligible prisoners are to earn 10 days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence-based recidivism reduction programming or productive activities.9 Eligible prisoners who are classified in the minimum or low risk categories and who have not increased their risk of recidivism over two assessments may receive five additional days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation in evidence based recidivism reduction programming or productive activities.”
Just like the FIRST STEP Act and Davis, we will continue to look at all of this and get back to you all in future newsletters. We encourage you to reach out to us and set up an appointment for a complimentary call to discuss whether we can help with your loved ones case.