It seems beyond absurd in retrospect that Matthew Charles has to return to prison. His story is the rare one where reason and emotion align.
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 became 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 was the success story, both within and without. Charles was what the system aspired to produce. Charles was a success story of a system that produced mostly failure. So what does the system do with him?
He’s going to prison. To finish out a 35-year term for selling crack to an informant in the 90’s.
Charles had already served 21 years before his sentence was cut short as a result of crack guideline changes passed by the Obama administration. But 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.
Way back when everyone, of every political persuasion, was certain that crack was the devil, some inexplicably horrible superdrug that would destroy humanity, the United States Sentencing Commission chose to punish its distribution at a rate of 100 to 1 compared with powdered cocaine. And if the Sentencing Commission said so, it had to be true, because they were empirical and beyond reproach. Crack was an epidemic, and something must be done! Everyone agreed.
So Matthew Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison. It was an absurdly long sentence, but other than criminal defense lawyers, no one cared. The conservatives were all about law and order, and Bill Clinton was even more about law and order to prove he could be even more Draconian than the other team. It was easy at the time, as everyone still believed that drugs, particularly crack, were the ruin of society.
After decades of lobbying, arguing, and a change in societal hysteria from crack to terrorists, the highly-scientific Sentencing Commission relented. Somewhat. They reduced the relative punishment for crack down to 18 to 1. Still nonsensical, since the justification would have required a straight one to one comparison, and because the sentences for powdered cocaine were already ridiculously severe. But it was better than before, even if still irrationally severe. At least there was finally a crack through which there was some hope of relief.
And they did one thing more that was extremely controversial: they made it retroactive, which Congress embodied in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
On June 30, 2011 the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to the proposed permanent guideline amendment. The effective date of this retroactive effect and changes to §1B1.10 (Reduction in Term of Imprisonment as a Result of Amended Guideline Range), the policy statement governing retroactivity, was November 1, 2011.
But like all acts of governmental benevolence, it came with caveats, one of which was that it wasn’t available to “career offenders.” Charles had a prior. We remain tied to the fantasy of the virgin non-violent prisoner, some poor fellow who made one mistake for which he’ll pay forever. But two mistakes? Three? Screw him. Life plus cancer for the proven recidivist. But when he looks like Matthew Charles, he suddenly doesn’t look quite so scary and evil.
The Sentencing Commission could have made the reduction automatic, but decided that would make it too easy. Instead, it required that prisoners apply for it, and apply they did. En masse. For reasons that are unclear, Charles’ application made it through, even though it shouldn’t have given his prior. And so he was released.
But, over the past two years, Charles built a new life — he bought clothing, furniture, a cell phone, a car. He rented a room in East Nashville. There are frames with new pictures and smiling faces on the nightstand next to his bed.
Over the next few weeks, Charles donates everything he can. He returns his SUV to the dealer and gives the house key back to his landlord.
It’s hard not to be released. It’s torturous to be released and then ordered to return to prison. But why did the United States Attorney appeal? What about discretion? Why couldn’t they just turn their heads and look somewhere else, and let Charles’ case slide? After all, it was clear that this guy didn’t need to go back to prison. This guy wasn’t going back to selling drugs. This was the success story guy. Couldn’t they just let this one, this one guy, go?
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the real motivation for the decision to put Charles back in prison. Maybe it’s concern that soft judges will fudge the criteria for others if they let this one go? Maybe it’s because of fear that if he commits some heinous crime, the mob will blame the government for being too kind? Maybe they’re just being harsh, true believers in the evils of drugs? Regardless, there’s every incentive to strictly enforce the law.
But Matthew Charles’ story is just one of many, and prisons are full of people serving absurdly long sentences with the blessing of the hysterical mob of the day. Sure, he’s going back now because of the prosecution’s decision not to cut him a break, but his sentence of 35 years was because the public loved its government’s harshness against those it deemed too horrible to deserve anything less. We’re no less true believers today. We’ve just shifted our focus away from crack and guys like Matthew Charles to the devils du jour.