You may remember the plight of Matthew Charles. Convicted for a crack offense, Charles was lucky enough to be released from prison in 2016, nearly a decade before his term was up. He had been saved — he thought — by a reduction in the federal sentencing guidelines’ mandatory sentences for crack offenses.
Previously, crack sentences had been up to 100 times harsher than the sentences for an equivalent amount of powder cocaine. Charles’ release was part of an effort to reduce this senseless disparity, which had been found discriminatory against African-Americans.
In 2018, Charles received national attention when, in a rare twist, a higher court ordered him back to prison for two more years.
Now 52, Charles is among the first inmates to be released under the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill signed into law on Dec. 21. The Act contains a provision making it possible for crack offenders affected by the sentencing disparity to be released early.
The day before his hearing, federal prosecutors told the federal district court that they wouldn’t fight a new sentence reduction for Charles, and that they would not appeal a reduction.
The federal judge in Nashville who resentenced Charles this time specifically cited the First Step Act as justifying the sentence reduction.
“The defendant having already served the sentences imposed on the other counts in this case, is entitled to immediate release,” she wrote.
A model prisoner who served his community after his first release
Charles was sentenced to at least 35 years for selling 216 grams of cocaine and obtaining two firearms using an assumed name. He had been labeled a career offender.
Early in his incarceration, Charles found God and began rebuilding himself. He completed Bible correspondence courses, taught GED classes for other inmates, earned a college degree and became a law clerk, according to Nashville Public Radio. He helped other inmates with legal issues and worked on appeals briefs in his own case. He read and worked out. In 21 years behind bars, he never faced a single disciplinary action.
When he was released in 2016, he did everything right. He went to church every Sunday. He volunteered every week at a food pantry. He lived in a halfway house and worked minimum-wage jobs. He reconnected with relatives and even started a new romance.
Just after his new, final release, one of his attorneys described Charles as “a little bit in shock” and “just elated.”
Far too often, the federal system punishes offenders without giving them much hope that good behavior and rehabilitation will ease their way. The First Step Act will give many deserving inmates a second chance.