Something for you to chew on to start the long holiday weekend. If you’re not in the mood to read, no problem. There’s a radio segment at the link too.
Matthew Charles was convicted of drug and weapons charges in the mid-90s. He already had a record by the point so the feds argued that he was a “career offender.” He got 35 years — but was set free after 21 thanks to the Obama administration’s new guidelines for offenses involving crack, which were punished at the time with far more draconian sentences than those for cocaine. In those 21 years in prison he found God and, by all accounts, became a new man:
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. But really, his rehabilitation started years prior.
In prison, he took college classes and correspondence courses, he taught a GED program and got certified as a law clerk. With his training, he helped other incarcerated men understand the judicial system long after their public defenders moved on to the next case.
Charles kept the secrets of those who were illiterate so they wouldn’t face ridicule or harassment — he read them letters from the court and drafted filings for them in the library. He organized bible studies and counseled newcomers. Two decades in federal insitututions — from maximum to low security — without a single disciplinary infraction.
He’s been out for two years and, as noted, has thrived. But there’s a hitch. The federal government appealed his early release, arguing that Charles didn’t get his stiff 35-year sentence because he had sold crack. He got it because he was a career offender. And the new Obama guidelines said nothing about reducing sentences for people like that.
An appellate court, reviewing the record, agreed with the feds. The new sentencing guidelines didn’t apply in his case. And his sterling record as a prisoner would do him no good in earning early release for good behavior, as federal sentencing doesn’t take that into account.
And so Charles, despite having been released by the federal government and lived as a free man for years, will have to go back to prison and serve another decade to atone for their error. “He’s rebuilt his life and now they’re coming to snatch it,” a friend told NPR. Disgraceful.
But an opportunity for Trump. POTUS likes the idea of using clemency for PR, having reminded us of that literally yesterday. He also cares not a whit for the usual procedural argle-bargle that clemency applications normally endure within the DOJ as they’re vetted and then presented to the president for consideration. In this case he wouldn’t need to grant Charles a full pardon, just a commutation of his sentence to time served. There’d be a risk, of course, that Charles might reoffend, in which case Trump would be on the hook to explain to his victims why he was set free. But that risk seems small and meanwhile there’s lots of good politics to be had here. Evangelicals would appreciate seeing him vouch for the power of faith to transform a man for the better; fans of prison reform would be glad to see the law-and-order president acknowledge that sometimes the stiffest sentences aren’t necessary. It’d help ease racial divisions a bit, with the “white identity politics” president commuting the sentence of a black American. And it’d demonstrate that Trump, contra his harshest critics, really is capable of compassion. At a minimum, he should ask the DOJ’s pardon office to fast-track a review of Charles’s case. Hope he does it.