From the moment hearts began to break for Matthew Charles, it was clear that the unduly passionate would conflate the “injustice” suffered by this one person with the problem to be cured. Charles brought two very valuable assets to the table. First, he was an unquestionably worthy poster boy for the cause. Second, the government’s demand that he be returned to prison following Charles’ mistaken release was something that everyone could agree was wholly unjustified and unjustifiable.
It was also a total outlier scenario that bore, at most a tangential connection to the norm, to the general problem facing people who had done everything they could to improve themselves while in prison and prepare themselves for a re-entry into society, where they could live happy, law-abiding lives.
It’s unclear how many “Matthew Charleses” there are in prison. Maybe a thousand. Maybe a million. But as they were never erroneously released and unceremoniously returned, they would never be Matthew Charles. And, in its relative and peculiar way, it’s good to be Matthew Charles, not because he didn’t suffer but because all the others who suffered very much like him would never get the attention he got.
Matthew Charles’s lease application was rejected again bc of his criminal record (even w me paying his rent in advance). If there are any landlords w a 2 bedroom in Nashville willing to give Mr Charles a 2nd chance, contact [email protected] Serious inquiries only, thank you 🙏🏼
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 15, 2019
Is it good to be the beneficiary of Kim Kardashian’s largesse, not to mention audience on social media? It’s certainly good for a guy coming out of prison to have someone pay your rent or champion your cause when no landlord will rent an apartment to you.
And unsurprisingly, replies to this very public request included people who were also in need of someone to pay their rent, to champion their cause. Whether they deserved it or not is unknown, but it raises the question of whether Matthew Charles, deserving though he may be, is the only person in need of help, worthy of Kardashian attention.
This by no means is to suggest Kim Kardashian is wrong to pick a poor soul and try to help. As criminal defense lawyers, we save people one at a time as well. It’s not enough, but it’s what we do. But we also grasp our role in the system and know that tomorrow it will be another poor soul, and the next day another. We realize that there is no shortage of people for whom our efforts are needed. Does Kardashian? Do her millions of followers?
Matthew Charles is running head first into a wall built by landlords and their insurers, that renting an apartment to a newly released convict exposes other tenants, the ones who managed not to commit a particularly heinous crime or at least not get caught, to theoretical harm and therefore liability. If a landlord rents to a known felon, and that known felon subsequently harms another person, his negligent renting will be the first place the new victim’s lawyer looks for redress. And the landlord will immediately contact the insurer.
The sad story of a sweet, innocent tenant being raped, assaulted, murdered, by some ex-con will break hearts too. When the criterion for “something must be done” is that the story broke your heart, such irreconcilable conflicts are unavoidable. Hearts require no logic to break, and so we consistently support fixes that will cause obviously untenable situations to arise, and justify them by limiting our concerns to the sad stories.
How can you not feel for the suffering of Matthew Charles? How can you not feel for the suffering of the tenant who was murdered? Both may be true, but who wins in the heartbreak sweepstakes?
California, where more laws are motivated by sad one-off stories as an experiment in public policy failure than anywhere else, is considering a law to seal criminal records after sentences are completed.
Under a bill now making its way through the California State Legislature, millions of people in the state who have misdemeanor or lower-level felony records could be spared those problems: their criminal records would automatically be sealed from public view once they completed prison or jail sentences. The legislation would not apply to people convicted of committing the most serious crimes, like murder or rape.
The quaint notion that once a person has “paid their debt to society,” they should be welcomed back and given the opportunity to thrive died long ago. While it might serve better to re-establish this understanding of re-entry, it’s far easier to pass a law in lieu of shifting those with easily broken hearts to pick a side and recognize that there will be the occasional innocent tenant, co-worker, barbershop customer, who will be harmed.
One in three Americans has a criminal record, according to the Justice Department, and a National Institute of Justice study found that having a criminal record reduced the chance of getting a job offer or a callback by 50 percent.
If you’re an employer with ten job applications on your desk, six of which reflect no conviction, would you hold that against the applicant? What incentive is there for you to say, “Hey, why not risk catastrophe and pick the ex-con when I have all these other people who managed not to get convicted?” As with well-intended laws to “ban the box” to check if you’ve been convicted, decision-making is done by proxy. That didn’t turn out well.
By twitting about her new pal, Matthew Charles, Kim Kardashian touches upon a problem that affects thousands of poor souls. When he gets an apartment, many of her followers will believe the problem is solved, and gushingly thank Kardashian for saving the whales.
Others will query why there isn’t a Matthew Charles law to prevent this grave injustice from happening. Few will consider the damage that might come of whatever simple fix to the thousands of others whose names they will never know and who will be left to pay their own rent. These will be the same voices telling about how their heart is broken when some ex-con rapes and murders some sweet woman who baked cookies for the neighborhood children.