Some federal inmates still serve extra months.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan law enacted in 2018, aims to provide opportunities for minimum-risk or low-risk offenders to receive shorter sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. The law is intended to reduce harsh sentences, decrease recidivism, lower the prison population, and lessen racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

However, concerns have arisen regarding the implementation of the law, with some federal inmates remaining in prison beyond their release dates. Sreedhar Potarazu, a former federal inmate and advocate, has reviewed several cases where inmates were incarcerated for additional months due to delays in transferring them to prerelease custody, such as halfway houses or home confinement.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contracts with approximately 160 halfway house locations offering over 10,000 beds, but it’s unclear how often these facilities are at maximum capacity or if they can offer additional space. Walter Pavlo, president of Prisonology LLC, a consulting firm that includes former BOP case managers, wardens, and sentence computation professionals, has observed cases where inmates remain in prison past their release dates, with a lack of capacity at halfway houses appearing to be a contributing factor.

The BOP stated that it makes every effort to place eligible inmates in prerelease custody, but it does not track how many inmates may be incarcerated longer due to delays in transferring them. The agency added that some areas, particularly populated urban areas, are experiencing capacity concerns.

The issue now extends beyond the calculation of time credits to the agency’s responsibility to secure a place outside of prison or in home confinement for inmates as part of their prerelease custody. The First Step Act mandates that the BOP director ensures there is sufficient prerelease custody capacity to accommodate all eligible prisoners.

Rep. David Trone, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, believes that the First Step Act has not been executed properly, and more savings could be incurred when inmates who have been through First Step Act programs are rehabilitated, find work through transitional housing, and do not return to prison.

Ames Grawert, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, noted that implementation challenges are common in any law, especially in complex systems like the BOP. He emphasized the need for Congress to ensure the BOP has the funding to implement the First Step Act and the infrastructure is in place.

Potarazu, an ophthalmic surgeon, spent at least four additional months in prison on financial fraud-related charges after he was eligible to be moved to a halfway house in 2023 under the First Step Act. He filed a petition seeking for his time credits to be accurately calculated, and a federal judge ruled in his case on Wednesday, although the case was dismissed without prejudice because Potarazu was no longer in BOP custody.

The BOP declined to comment on the ruling. Potarazu hopes to see others like himself released when the BOP is legally obligated to do so, and he wants prisoners to avoid assuming they’ll remain behind bars longer than necessary and resorting to lengthy litigation.