Matthew Charles lives in Nashville.
When they let me out of prison in 2016 after 21 years, I was determined to make my second chance at life count. I got a job as quickly as I could. I volunteered at the Little Pantry That Could in Nashville, and I began to reconnect with my family.
Then, after a year and a half, they changed their minds and sent me back.
Turns out my release — ordered by a federal judge who thought a new drug-sentencing law applied to my case — was a mistake. The government appealed the judge’s decision, and I was ordered to go back to prison last May.
After a local radio reporter told my story, it quickly spread around the country. National criminal-justice reform groups including FAMM, and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, urged President Trump to commute my sentence. At the same time, they were using my lengthy jail term to push Congress to pass sentencing reform.
In December, Congress approved and Trump signed the First Step Act. The new law included a provision that shortened sentences for crack cocaine-related offenses, such as mine. The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that change will help almost 2,700 people.
This time, there was no mistake. The government and my defense attorney agreed that I should be released immediately. On Jan. 3, I went home. I was one of the first people to get released under the law.
My heart is filled with gratitude for everyone who supported me and supported the First Step Act. Every week, I hear about more people leaving prison because of the new law. Overall, more than 150,000 people in the long term will benefit from the law’s sentencing and prison reforms. The First Step Act was a great start, but we have to do more. I got a second chance — and so should so many others.
Since leaving prison, I have looked for ways to serve the poor and to advocate on behalf of those I left behind. This week, I went to Washington to thank lawmakers for supporting prison reform and to ask that they consider more reforms that will recognize that people can change. In the year and a half that I was home, people saw that I was not the same person who was convicted of selling crack as a young man. There are many people still serving decades-long sentences who have rehabilitated themselves, like I did. Unfortunately, most Americans do not see or hear from them, and they are not given a real opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed.
Congress should pass a law that would allow all federal prisoners to earn a second chance after serving a certain amount of time — maybe 15 years. People would not be guaranteed release, but they would be given an opportunity to be resentenced by a judge. The judge could determine whether they had used their time in prison to atone for their crimes and make changes for the better. If not, they would continue to serve their original sentence.
A law such as this would encourage prisoners to improve themselves. Some might think this idea is too lenient, but 15 years is a long time. From what I saw during my years behind bars, anyone who wants and deserves a second chance would be able to demonstrate that within 15 years.
The First Step Act has some great things in it, but I hope now that the Bureau of Prisons actually does what it’s supposed to. If I had to pick one thing that helps prisoners actually rehabilitate, it would be staying in touch with their families. The First Step Act says that prisoners have to be located within 500 driving miles of their homes. I know a lot of men in prison who haven’t seen their children in years. I hope the Bureau of Prisons starts fixing things so those children get to connect with their fathers.
I got lucky. Our justice system shouldn’t depend on luck. The First Step Act is in place — now it should be used to make real change and help families. And let’s not lose any time in making a Next Step Act, because everyone deserves a second chance.