Four men at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution filed handwritten habeas corpus petitions last fall that argued they were denied reduced prison sentences authorized by Congress under the 2018 criminal justice reform law known as the First Step Act.
“I was told I was eligible to receive earn [sic] time credits but they refused to apply them to my record,” Adrian Cazares, one of the inmates, wrote in his petition.
The First Step Act was passed in 2018 with bipartisan support and aimed to reduce lengthy federal prison sentences, and give nonviolent inmates a path to early release. Under the law, those federal prisoners were able to earn credits by enrolling in programs, such as job training and drug and alcohol treatment, designed to reduce recidivism. Inmates who earned enough credits could get a sentence reduced by up to 12 months or the ability to complete a sentence in a community setting, such as a reentry center or home detention.
But for many, including some men inside Oregon’s only federal prison complex, those credits haven’t been applied.
“We’ve received dozens of applications from people who feel they have been taking programs that qualify,” said Oregon’s Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay, whose office represents Cazares. “They’re trying to work on their transition to the community, but they’re not getting the credit from Sheridan.”
Hay said it’s frustrating it’s taken so long to get this aspect of the First Step Act up and running.
“Congress passed the law three years ago to require earned time credit to be provided and it was for a good reason: People need training in order to make their transition to the community, and they should get an incentive to engage in that training.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report in November, which found the Bureau of Prisons has failed to apply credit for roughly 60,000 inmates nationwide who are eligible if they completed programs.
“We are concerned that the delay in applying earned time credits may negatively affect inmates who have earned a reduction in their sentence or an earlier placement in the community,” the Inspector General’s report states.
Bureau of Prisons officials told the inspector general’s office that they’re working to finalize rules for programs that will count toward earned time credit. The First Step Act requires those rules to be in place no later than Jan. 15.
Still, the inspector general noted that since 2020, the BOP has had the ability to give prisoners who participate in programs incentives that include time credits.
Cazares and other inmates in Oregon argued that the Bureau of Prisons violated the First Step Act because the agency refused to calculate the credit they received toward a reduced sentence.
During a meeting last year with inmates at the Sheridan prison, the warden refused to discuss the law or ways to earn credits to reduce sentences, according to court documents. The warden allegedly told the inmates, “We are not doing First Step Act credits at this prison right now,” Cazares wrote in his habeas petition. Cazares said the warden threatened to discipline inmates if they asked about it again.
The U.S. Attorneys Office in Oregon, which is representing Sheridan officials the Bureau of Prisons in the litigation, declined to comment. Though its positions are well documented in court records.
In 2018, Cazares was sentenced to 71 months in prison for importing cocaine. He’s now completing his sentence at a reentry site in California with a release date set for March 2022.
Despite taking several courses in prison such as anger management, typing, entrepreneurship and completing a drug abuse rehab program, attorneys for the Justice Department argued in court documents Cazares didn’t take “enough qualifying programs” to earn an early release.
“Because the law gives the BOP until January 15, 2022, to provide qualifying programs and activities to all inmates, Cazares cannot argue that he has been unlawfully deprived of the opportunity to earn [First Step Act] time credits,” attorneys for the Justice Department stated.
Last month, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon issued a recommendation that agreed the Bureau of Prisons has until Jan. 15 to “expand its offerings and extend opportunities to participate in programming to all inmates.” But the judge also stated the First Step Act does not allow the prison system to “delay awarding time credits to inmates that complete qualifying programming” before 2022.
U.S. District Court Judge Karin Immergut will take up those findings next year.