Thanks in large part to the First Step Act signed into law by President Trump, Tennessee man Matthew Charles has been released from prison once again as of Thursday. Matthew’s case drew significant media coverage when he was sent back to prison last year. Back in 1996, Charles was initially sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine. He was released in 2016 after serving 21 years of that sentence due to changes in sentencing guidelines for drug offenders that came about as a result of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Charles was a model prisoner by all accounts, not committing a single disciplinary infraction during his sentence. Nashville Public Radio detailed Charles’s remarkable rehabilitation both during his prison sentence and after his release. They reported that Charles was permitted to take college courses and serve as a law clerk and that he also found God during this time, completing over 30 Bible correspondence courses.
After being released, Matthew found a girlfriend, a job, a church, and reconnected with his family. He also became a dedicated community servant, volunteering on a near weekly basis at a local food pantry known as “The Little Pantry That Could”. Despite Charles’s remarkable transformation, the government appealed his release, on the grounds that Charles was a “career criminal” and thus was not eligible for release under the revised sentencing guidelines. Their argument was based on the fact that Charles had previously served time on multiple charges including kidnapping and assault. The U.S. Court of Appeals agreed and sent Charles back to prison in May of 2018 to serve the remaining 14 years of his sentence. Despite being sent back to prison Charles would not allow his faith to be shaken, telling Nashville Public Radio, “But I believe that God is still in charge of the situation. He hasn’t revealed to me what he’s doing yet, but my faith remains the same.” In a rare and encouraging moment of unity, outlets from across the political spectrum including NPR, The Federalist, Reason, Bustle, Fox News, and numerous others reported on the story with many arguing for Charles to be granted Clemency.
While the efforts of Matthew’s legal team and numerous others advocating for his release appeared to be in vain, the retroactive provisions of the First Step Act gave Charles’s legal team another avenue to pursue. Among other provisions, the First Step Act gives Judges more leniency in sentencing for nonviolent crimes. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, the same judge who had reluctantly ordered Charles back to prison last year, ruled on Thursday that the new law made Charles eligible for immediate release and reduced Charles’s sentence to time served. Fortunately, it does not appear that the 52-year-old Charles’s freedom will be endangered again as federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they would not contest or appeal any reduction in Matthew’s sentencing. Charles’s faith has been rewarded and we should all praise God that a genuinely changed man has been given his freedom at last.