A Crack in the Justice System: The Story of Matthew Charles

After rehabilitating himself thoroughly, Charles is headed back to prison for a decades-old offense.

Jordan Candler · May 30, 2018

Matthew Charles, like every human being, has made mistakes. One of his biggest regrets was serving as a conduit for drugs. He was busted by law enforcement in his 20s. In 1996, the ex-drug dealer — whom a judge declared “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets” — faced the consequences of his actions, for which he was given a 35-year prison sentence.

Charles’ background is reminiscent of most criminals, particularly among minorities. His family, all black, depended on public housing, and he was abused by his father, which manifested itself in virulent anger that even a stint in the Army couldn’t vanquish. As he explained it: “All of my behavior kind of mimicked my father’s behavior. That’s how he treated my mother; that’s how he treated us. She got pushed and slapped around like a rag doll. All my childhood I was seeing that. But I said I’d never be like that. And I ended up being a worse version of him.”

But what made Charles different from hordes of criminals who leave prison only to return to their erstwhile behavior was his yearning for positive life changes. According to a December 2017 report by Nashville Public Radio (NPR), “While awaiting trial, an inmate he’d befriended left him a Bible the day he was deported. Alone in his cell, he began reading. It was the start of his spiritual awakening.”

The report elucidated: “In the two decades that followed in prison, Charles rebuilt himself. Within the first five years, he completed more than 30 Bible correspondence courses. He taught GED classes, worked on a college degree and became a law clerk. He followed legal changes closely, helping other inmates and filing countless briefs in his own case. He also read old books that were donated to the chapel and worked out to stay sharp. He received no negative marks on his discipline record — ever.”

Then came the unexpected. “Matthew Charles walked out of a federal prison a decade before the end of his term, after the Obama administration reduced the minimum sentence guidelines for dealing crack,” NPR explains. In an updated account posted last week, NPR added, “Since his release in 2016, Charles has held a steady job. He volunteers every Saturday, has reconnected with his family, and started a serious relationship.”

Unfortunately, the justice system through which Charles succeeded in ameliorating himself came back to utterly fail him. In a surreal update, NPR says that “a federal court ruled his term was reduced in error and ordered him back behind bars to finish his sentence,” adding, “The U.S. Attorney’s office appealed his release on the grounds that Charles was legally considered a ‘career offender’ due to a prior stint in state prison. They said the retroactive change in the law did not apply to him — and a Court of Appeals agreed.” Translation: “He’s going to prison. To finish out a 35-year term for selling crack to an informant in the 90s.”

The injustice is pretty obvious even to those tasked with enforcing existing law. As NPR reports, “On March 28, in a courtroom filled with more than two dozen of Charles’ friends, coworkers and loved ones, Judge Aleta Trauger called Charles’ case ‘sad’ and commended his ‘exemplary rehabilitation.’ But, she added that ‘her hands were tied’ and reimposed his original sentence.”

Donald Trump recently pardoned boxer Jack Johnson. And if there’s ever a modern-day example of a person who has earned his right to clemency, it’s Matthew Charles. In the meantime, Congress should act immediately to stop this madness from ever happening again by implementing some much-needed criminal justice reform.

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