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NIJ’s Role Under the First Step Act
By The National Institute of Justice
Published: 09/09/2019

Legislation The First Step Act of 2018 (the Act) aims to reform the federal prison system and reduce recidivism.

NIJ plays a key role in major components of the Act and will assist the Attorney General in —
  • Assessing the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ existing prisoner risk and needs assessment system.
  • Developing and evaluating a new risk and needs assessment system.
  • Developing recommendations regarding effective evidence-based recidivism reduction programs and activities, and conducting research and data analysis on evidence-based programs and assessment tools.
We are committed to working with our federal partners to implement these key features of the statute.

The Role of the Independent Review Committee

To assist the Department of Justice as it develops and implements risk and needs assessment tools and evidence-based recidivism reduction programs, the Act calls for NIJ to establish an Independent Review Committee (IRC). The IRC is tasked with:
  • Reviewing existing prisoner risk and needs assessment systems that were already in place in the Bureau of Prisons as of the First Step Act’s enactment.
  • Developing recommendations regarding evidence-based recidivism reduction programs and productive activities.
  • Conducting research and analysis on a variety of topics, including evidence-based recidivism reduction programs relating to the use of prisoner risk and needs assessment tools, the most effective and efficient uses of such programs, and which programs most effectively reduce the risk of recidivism.
  • Reviewing and validating the risk and needs assessment system developed by the Department for the First Step Act.
  • Assisting the Attorney General in carrying out related duties under the Act.
Establishing the Independent Review Committee

As a research agency, NIJ typically uses and greatly values a competitive process for award funding. In the present case, the short time frame under the Act for constituting the Independent Review Committee did not allow for NIJ’s typical processes, which normally take several months to complete.

While the Act was enacted in December 2018, under the Anti-Deficiency Act, NIJ could not move forward with the selection of an IRC host organization until appropriated funding was available for the Act’s implementation. When the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill, signed by President Trump on February 15, 2019, did not fund the Act’s implementation, the Department of Justice quickly worked to identify other sources to fund the IRC.

On March 8, 2019, the Department notified Congress of a proposal to allocate deobligated prior year balances to fund the IRC. On April 2, 2019, the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies and the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies approved the reprogramming request.

The tight timelines coupled with the lack of an appropriation for activities required under Title I of the Act led NIJ to make a non-competitive award to the Hudson Institute. Announced by the Department of Justice on April 8, 2019, the award was made after considering a variety of factors, including the organization’s legislatively mandated status as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, the organization’s ability to build a qualified team of experts, their expertise regarding risk and needs assessments, staffing capabilities, and ability to complete high-profile projects in a timely manner. NIJ has begun meeting with the Hudson Institute. NIJ will continue to provide updates on the IRC’s progress throughout the implementation of the Act.

Developing a New Risk and Needs Assessment System

Risk and needs assessment tools can provide critical information across varying decision points in the criminal justice system. It is critical that the Bureau of Prisons’ system employ static and dynamic factors that inform the provision of programming, treatment referrals, and help to predict the likelihood of recidivism and serious misconduct. We have taken critical early steps in the development of the new system — reviewing existing risk and needs assessment systems and the available research literature, meeting with outside experts from state departments of corrections to learn more about their risk and needs system, and hosting listening sessions to hear directly from the field.

Throughout our review of existing systems, we have identified and contracted with outside experts and leading researchers, including Dr. Grant Duwe Ph.D., Dr. Zachary Hamilton Ph.D., and Dr. Angela Hawken Ph.D., for assistance and consultation as the Department develops the risk and reeds assessment system under the Act. Each of these experts brings unique expertise as they augment the efforts of NIJ and the Bureau of Prisons to implement the Act. Members of the IRC are also actively advising NIJ on the development of the new risk and needs assessment system.

Listening to First Step Act Stakeholders

At NIJ, we understand that research, development, and evaluation cannot happen in a vacuum— you have to listen to those on the front lines and get input from multiple stakeholders. We have hosted three listening sessions with a wide variety of constituents — researchers, think tanks, prison advocates, corrections and law enforcement groups, and victim and victim advocacy groups — to hear their perspectives on the development of the risk and needs assessment system.

At each session, a diverse set of speakers provided important perspectives and information. The information gathered during these listening sessions will be used by NIJ and its partners in our work on the risk and needs assessment system.


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