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Prisoner Who Inspired First Step Act Is First Released

by Kevin W. Bliss

Federal prisoner Matthew Charles, 52, was released in January 2019 after serving over 21 years of his 35-year sentence for selling crack cocaine in 1996. He was one of the catalysts for, and the first beneficiary of, the First Step Act which was recently signed into law by President Trump. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.18; Jan. 2019, p.34].

Charles was convicted before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was passed to rectify the disparate sentencing between federal defendants convicted of powder cocaine vs. crack cocaine offenses – which led to egregious racial disparities.

Yet the Act did not apply retroactively in all cases; Charles’ prior convictions classified him as a “career criminal,” which made him ineligible for a reduced sentence.

Still, he was initially released early in 2016 after serving 21 years. Charles seemed to adjust well: He obtained a job, volunteered at a food pantry, and made positive connections with family and friends. Regardless, federal prosecutors appealed his release and Charles was forced to return to prison in May 2018.

Georgetown associate law professor Shon Hopwood – himself a former prisoner – heard about Charles’ case and used it to push for passage of the First Step Act. 

“Matthew’s story is one we flagged for members of Congress. We used [his] story to sell lawmakers on why the First Step Act was so important, and why some of these sentencing provisions lead to unjust sentences and unjust outcomes,” Hopwood stated.

Julieta Martinelli, a reporter for WPLN in Nashville, Tennessee, had been following Charles’ case since his initial release in 2016. Her reporting resulted in national attention and more support for sentencing reform. She said Charles’ case had been discussed by such notables as Kim Kardashian, Chelsea Clinton and Matt Walsh.

Following his second release from prison, after the First Step Act made the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive and he received a sentence reduction, Charles said he hoped his experience inspires others to seek rehabilitation.

“It allows them to have hope,” he said. “It allows them to keep their mind clear. Now they can say, ‘I’m still going to have to do this sentence. But when I am released from this sentence depends upon how I reprogram. How I take advantage of the situations allowed before me.’” 



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