One of the first prisoners to be released under a new criminal justice reform law is Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man first profiled by WPLN in December 2017.
Charles was serving another decade behind bars, but Thursday morning his sentence was unexpectedly reduced to time served, several weeks after the passage of the First Step Act. He was released Thursday.
Charles made national headlines last year, after he was re-sentenced and ordered back to prison two years after his release. News outlets from the New York Times to Fox News covered his case, following a WPLN profile on him. A number of public figures, including celebrities and politicians from both parties, have advocated for his freedom.
Charles’ legal team had exhausted all avenues for release, and a petition for presidential clemency has been pending with the White House since last summer.
But the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump last month, opened another avenue, in part by reducing guidelines for crack offenses and making those changes retroactive. Matthew Charles’ federal public defender filed a motion after the bill passed, claiming if he were to be sentenced now, he’d fall under a lesser guideline.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s office filed a response. They said they would not fight the request, nor would they appeal if his sentence was reduced. On Thursday morning, federal judge Aleta Trauger agreed with Charles' attorneys and asked for his immediate release from a Kentucky prison. Trauger had previously asked prosecutors to consider dropping the case and expressed regret at his sentencing, saying that her hands were tied.
Shon Hopwood, one of Charles’ attorneys and a key figure in the push for the First Step Act, says Charles’ is the first case he knows of where the law has been successfully applied retroactively.
“On one hand, we used Matthew’s story to sell lawmakers why the First Step Act was so important — why some of these sentencing provisions lead to unjust sentence and unjust outcomes," Hopwood said. "On the back hand side, what allowed the judge to go back and sentence Matthew to time served was the provision of the First Step Act which made it retroactively applicable."
Hopwood says it’s still too soon to tell how Matthew Charles’ release might affect other similar cases.
Matthew Charles was incarcerated for selling crack in 1996 and was released after serving two decades behind bars. While in prison, Charles took college courses, became a law clerk and a mentor for new prisoners. He spent two decades without a single disciplinary infraction. A judge took that into account when reducing his sentence in 2016.
But federal prosecutors argued he shouldn't have been released because he was considered a "career offender." Supporters pointed to his rehabilitation while in prison, and model behavior after, but a higher court ruled Obama-era retroactive changes did not apply to him — meaning he was released in error. He returned to federal prison last May to serve another decade.