It is the stuff of nightmares.
After having served 21 years for federal drug and gun crimes, Matthew Charles got a second chance at life when he gained early release from prison under a new federal law meant to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. Charles moved to Nashville and got a minimum-wage job. He bought a car, reconnected with family, had a girlfriend, went to church, and volunteered for the local food pantry.
But two years later, the courts came back to Charles and said he had to return to prison. As a “career criminal,” he wasn’t eligible for the early release he had been granted. So, in early 2018, he turned himself back in to federal custody.
Outrage over Charles’ plight fueled passage of the federal FIRST STEP Act late last year. The wide-ranging criminal justice reform measure addresses sentencing guidelines that impacted Charles and thousands of other people locked up on drug charges. Days after President Donald Trump signed the bill into law, Charles’ public defenders were back in court, seeking his release.
On Jan. 3, Charles became a free man once again, the first to be released under the FIRST STEP Act. But his story continues to take twists and turns that illustrate the many challenges that convicted felons face when re-entering society.
Charles shared his story on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw. The program also featured Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for criminal justice reforms at the state and national level.
As a young man, Charles racked up a series of criminal charges, including larceny, assault, and gun crimes. When crack cocaine came to his neighborhood in the 1990s, he started selling it.
“I sorely regret it because now I look back and see the harm it actually had done to the community,” he says
When Charles was arrested in 1995 on federal drug charges, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Under drug laws at that time, sentences for people who possessed crack cocaine were far tougher than for those with powder cocaine, even though they are the same substance.
“It was based on racial disparity that affected the African-American community more than it did anything else,” says Charles.
In prison, Charles was able to turn his life around. He committed to his Christian faith and led Bible studies for other inmates. He took classes to become a law clerk and helped prisoners with their legal filings. He maintained a clean disciplinary record. In short, he was a model prisoner.
Then in 2010, the Obama Administration passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession, and eliminated mandatory minimums for simple possession of crack. Charles filed a petition with the court and was able to get his sentence reduced. After two decades in prison, he was paroled in 2016.
But there was a problem. The Fair Sentencing Act didn’t cover so-called “career offenders” like Charles. That’s why two years later, the court ordered him back to prison despite everything he was able to achieve both as a model prisoner and then as a model parolee. He would have to serve another decade towards his original 35-year sentence.
“I was kind of disappointed when I had to return to prison,” Charles says today, “but because of my faith, I’ll never be bitter or angry.”
Challenges to Re-entry
The case rallied criminal justice reform advocates like Holly Harris to take up Charles’ cause.
“What was the public-safety benefit to sending Matthew Charles back to prison?” says Harris. “For two years he had been out, he had proven he was rehabilitated.”
The group advocated for a new round of sentencing reforms embodied in the FIRST STEP Act, also known as the Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act. It made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which allowed career offenders like Charles eligible for the reduced sentences. Harris says there are many more people like Charles who also could benefit from the new rules.
“The sad thing is, our prisons are filled with people who are talented, who are smart, who are capable, who are good people who can really come back to society and do great things,” Harris says. “Even people who’ve committed violent crimes can change and really be assets to our community, so let’s not just lock them up and throw away the key and forget about these individuals.”
In the weeks since his second release, Charles has become something of a celebrity, appearing on cable news talks shows to advocate for prison reform. He was also a guest of President Trump at his State of the Union address in February.
But the transition hasn’t been easy for Charles. He has been unable to rent an apartment because of his criminal record and because he has no credit history. So for now, he’s staying with friends and sleeping on their couch.
“When you limit the opportunity that a person has after they’ve paid their debt to society, then you’re forcing their hand,” says Charles. “Most people don’t want to get out and then come back [to prison], but the fact that there’s not many opportunities for them once they do, then they feel that they’re being denied their dignity that they deserve.”
Charles says the housing problem could be easily addressed. He says there are tax breaks for employers who will hire former convicts, so why not provide the same incentives to landlords?
“We want that to spread throughout the city because we don’t need all the felons in one apartment complex or one neighborhood, because that would be a recipe for disaster,” he says.
More Work Remains on Prison Reform
In addition to helping former felons secure safe housing, Harris says lawmakers need to allow greater access to criminal expungement. Many states, including Kentucky, allow some people who have completed their sentences to have low-level felony convictions expunged from their records. But Harris says federal lawmakers have yet to pass any expungement legislation.
She also advocates for more funding for treatment and rehabilitation efforts, especially for inmates who suffer from a substance use disorder or a mental health problem. Harris says the FIRST STEP Act does include such provisions, but no money has been appropriated for them yet. She says states that invest in more jails rather than in helping inmates find work and housing upon release have higher rates of recidivism.
“They’re just going to return to crime, return to prison,” says Harris. “We’re no safer, we’re throwing good money after bad, and this is the cycle of failure that we’ve got to break.”
Prison should be about rehabilitation, according to Charles, rather than excessive punishment, since most inmates will eventually be released back to society. He says taxpayers should want those in prison to improve themselves so that they will be better citizens when they are released.
“They’re either going to work beside you or work with one of your family members or friends at a job,” Charles says, “so don’t you want that person coming out changed and different from how they were when they went inside?”