Keep Matthew Charles from re-arrest for decades’ past crimes!
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Last year, a Nashville man got an unlikely chance at redemption.
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. He has spent the past year and a half rebuilding his life.
But now in a rare case, a higher court says he needs to go back behind bars.
In 1996, he was found guilty of seven charges related to the distribution of 216 grams of crack cocaine. There were also weapons charges because Charles, a felon, had obtained two guns under an assumed name.
At trial, prosecution pointed to his criminal record. They labeled him a “career offender.”
Though the War on Drugs is still far from over, at the time, the crack-to-cocaine ratio was 100 to 1, meaning that possession (or distribution) of just one gram of crack carried the same punishment as 100 grams of cocaine — even though they’re two forms of the same drug.
Later, experts would testify that this resulted in disproportionate mass incarceration of low-income African American men. During this period, black men on average served longer sentences for non-violent crimes than white men for violent ones, according to the ACLU.
In 1995, just months before Charles’ arrest, the U.S. Sentencing Commission acknowledged a disparity in sentencing, but Congress refused to act. So when Charles stood before a judge, mandatory sentencing guidelines for crack meant he faced 30 years to life.
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.
If the federal system had not abolished parole, he might have been a perfect candidate. But the Department of Justice did away with sentence reductions for good conduct more than a decade before his arrest.
Then, in 2010, the Obama administration reduced minimum sentences for offenders like Charles. Kevin Sharp, the federal judge who reviewed Charles’ case, said he looked over old transcripts to determine whether the original judge based the sentence on the crack guidelines or his status as a "career offender" — an important distinction because sentences for career offenders haven’t been reduced.
“The way I read it, I thought that he was eligible,” says Sharp. “No doubt was a close call, but I thought that you couldn't discount was what had happened while he was in prison. I also thought that was important. He had really reformed.”
Sharp reduced Charles’ time by nine years based on the new crack guidelines. In 2016, Charles was paroled to a halfway house. He was finally free to build the life he’d envisioned behind bars.
But the government appealed his release on grounds that Charles was a career criminal. The prosecution declined to comment but in documents filed with the court, they say the new, more lenient guidelines did not apply to him. And the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed: they said Charles should return to prison and finish his sentence.
His lawyers argued that it's unnecessary and cruel to put Charles back in prison. They even asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on his case, but they refused. A recent filing is littered with letters of support from members of the community and local organizations that have worked with Charles.
Another consideration is the cost to taxpayers, his attorneys say. Another decade behind bars could cost more than a quarter million dollars.
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