Matthew Charles is now a free man, thanks to the First Step Act. Charles, who was convicted of selling crack cocaine over 20 years ago, received an outpouring of sympathy last year when he found out that he would have to return to prison after being released early in 2016. At the time, his story rose to national prominence, becoming the case that stripped off the veil concealing some of the appalling failures of the federal justice system.
…the positive impact that the First Step Act will bring…
When the American public learned of his story, calls for clemency soon followed, and his situation helped to usher in the national conversation on criminal justice reform. Judging by this latest development, it appears Charles’ story is one of many that pushed the Trump administration and members of Congress to pass legislation designed to address these problems.
Matthew Charles Is Free
Charles became one of the first inmates to be released under the new reform legislation. In 1996, he was convicted of selling 216 grams of crack and illegally possessing a firearm. His prior record, which included offenses such as domestic violence, assault, and drug charges, led him to being labeled as a “career offender.” He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
In 2016, a federal judge ordered his early release for good behavior after he had served 20 years. But the Justice Department appealed that decision – and won. Charles returned to prison in the summer of 2018 to begin serving out the rest of his sentence.
Interestingly enough, Charles did not allow this turn of events to cause him to lose hope. “I refused to be bitter or angry,” he told NBC News. “I got myself into the situation that I was in. And I did have a 35-year sentence, which was a legal sentence.”
During his stint in prison, Charles became a model inmate, leading Bible studies and teaching GED classes to his fellow prisoners. He also took college courses to become a law clerk while he was in prison. When the First Step Act, a 2010 law lessening mandatory-minimum sentences for crack offenses, was made retroactive, Charles was among more than 2,000 who were released.
“I think what Matthew shows is that people can change, character’s not static and people can have redemption if given the opportunity to come out of federal prison and show they are a changed person,” said Shon Hopwood, one of Charles’ lawyers.
A Victory For The Justice System
The story of Matthew Charles, as well as many others, exemplifies the positive impact that the First Step Act will bring as it rights some critical wrongs of our justice system. While some have legitimate concerns about the new legislation, it is clear that at least in some cases, the law will provide opportunities for individuals who have worked hard to turn away from their former lives.
Charles has become a poster child of the effects of genuine rehabilitation. Now that he is free, he plans to continue to work as a driver and volunteer at his local food pantry on the weekends. In this case, the First Step Act represents a resounding victory for Charles and society as a whole.
*Matthew Charles is no relation to the author.