First Step Act
Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man jailed in Kentucky, was one of the first prisoners released under a sweeping criminal justice reform law recently signed by President Donald J. Trump. Matthew Charles, a former drug dealer and convict was released thanks to his exemplary behavior and changes in US law.
Childhood was rough for Matthew Charles and his brothers and sisters. His family lived in cramped public housing in North Carolina, and his father was violent with Matthew and his brothers. Matthew got out of the chaos as soon as he could, joining the Army at age 18.
When he was discharged, though, it seemed he hadn’t really left any of that dysfunction and hopelessness behind him, and he started dealing drugs. What followed was nearly a decade during which he was, in his own words, a “dangerous criminal.” He spent about five years in prison.
At age 30, he was arrested for selling 216 grams of crack cocaine to an informant and illegally possessing a gun. He was given a 35-year sentence. At his sentencing in 1996, the judge described him as “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets.”
There would be few people who would disagree. But then something happened.
Matthew left prison in 2016. He didn’t have much to call his own at that point, but the positive outlook that he’d honed over decades behind bars helped him gain traction. He moved to Nashville, got a job as a driver, reconnected with his family, volunteered weekly at a food pantry called the Little Pantry That Could, and became deeply involved in his church. His boss praised his work as “meticulous,” and at the food pantry, the director said that Matthew was “one of the most amiable and friendly participants we have ever had.”
But after a year and half of freedom, the court reversed the reduction in sentence, citing an error in his release. Remarkably, Matthew was sent back to prison. He was determined to keep bitterness at bay, but going back to prison was incredibly difficult for Matthew—and many people felt the same way. A local reporter told his sad story, and celebrities and advocacy groups threw their support to his cause, hoping he might receive executive clemency.
In the end, though, it was the First Step Act that saved Matthew from decades more behind bars. Signed into law by President Trump December 21, 2018, the bill includes a provision to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, which the government agreed would allow for Matthew’s immediate release.
On January 3, 2019, he left prison. A man of few words, he nonetheless has many smiles, especially for the people who supported him after his return to prison and championed the legislation that released him for the second time. He has thrown himself into advocacy and giving God all the glory.