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Matthew Charles is Less Unique Than We’d Like

Conservatives should view the Matthew Charles as more than an egregious, one-time error

By now you’ve likely seen the news about Matthew Charles, the gentleman in Nashville ordered back to jail after being released 21 years into a 35 year sentence for selling crack cocaine.

Charles was released early because of changes to the dramatic disparity for sentencing between crimes related to powder cocaine versus crack cocaine. The release was in error based on lack of retroactive applicability of the new law in Charles’ case. Thus, his return to jail.

While technically correct under the particulars of the law, the case lacks moral justice. As news reports have recounted, Charles more than rehabilitated his life in prison, becoming a model citizen inside of prison and leading a productive life in his time outside of it. Conservatives, such as our own Erick Erickson, as well as at the Federalist and the Washington Examiner have rallied to Charles’ cause. And for good reason. Charles should go free.

As Reason recounts, Charles is a story-book case of rehabilitation:

Charles was not a model citizen when he first arrived at prison. By his own account, he was right where he deserved to be. He had a serious criminal record including attempted murder and kidnapping. His crack cocaine sentence included an enhancement for illegally purchasing guns.

But as the article details, Charles found religion in prison, became a law clerk and GED instructor, helped illiterate inmates decipher court documents, and served 21 years of hard time without a single disciplinary infraction. After his release, he held down a steady job, volunteered every Saturday at a food pantry, reconnected with his family, and found a serious girlfriend.

Yet, much of Charles’ circumstances are a standard extension of the criminal justice system’s housing of minority drug offenders for long sentences, even if the totality of the case is an egregious example of injustice so uncomfortable to society that people across the political spectrum are calling for recourse.

Let’s be clear: Charles is going back to prison because the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to appeal his release. They could have taken a look at the circumstance said, “this isn’t worth the resources to pursue.” A federal judge even encouraged them to drop the appeal. Instead, the office chose to continue the appeal and send a man back to jail for years who has already re-integrated back into society after serving 21 years for a non-violent crime.

You might say, “but that’s the law.”

Sure, it is. But, it’s still a choice.

The Examiner’s editorial in support of Charles’ release puts a nameless face on it, ascribing him as a victim of “legal bureaucracy.”

Not quite.

Prosecutor’s make choices about who they’re going to charge. They make choices about what those charges will be. They make choices about when and how plea bargain offers might be made, and as in Charles’ case, what appeals might be pursued.

Meanwhile, the police make choices about where they’re going to patrol, what neighborhoods they’re going to frequent, what tactics they choose to employ, and who they arrest in all of that.

What has been the net effect of the aggregate sum of these individual choices? A few things.

1) Mass incarceration ballooned during the war on drugs (though also due to addressing the rise of violent crime in the 70s and 80s as well). Either way, we lock a lot of people up as a nation.

2) Drug-related arrests disproportionately target black communities. Target? Yes, target. “Black and white Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses.” And “at the state level, blacks are about 6.5 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes.” Again, because human beings in law enforcement and criminal justice make choices.

3) While marijuana is steadily being legalized and de-emphasized as a criminal act in many jurisdictions, as recently as 2016 46% of the nearly 1.25 million Americans charged with possession of drugs were charged only for marijuana.

Lots of people going to jail, often disproportionately minorities, including, often, for using a substance our society is now steadily decriminalizing. We can do better.

The White House, to its credit, has made a modest effort toward criminal justice reform, though it’s more about changing conditions and programs in prison than it is re-considering who we send there and for how long (the White House specifically helped eliminate such sentencing reform from the legislation).

Whatever comes of the criminal justice bill currently under debate in DC, the case of Matthew Charles is simply an exceptionally poignant example of the need for reform.

Let’s say President Trump does the right thing and commutes Charles’ sentence. That would be a very good thing. But that shouldn’t be the end of the matter. Maybe it’s time we as conservatives take more seriously the question of who are we putting in jail, how they are arrested, why, and at what cost to society, both in prison costs and lives wasted for years in jail rather than contributing to society.

Reason’s coverage of Charles’ case closed with an exceedingly revealing anecdote:

Charles is hardly the only prisoner who has been rehabilitated and is a good candidate for commutation. In fact, federal prosecutors argued that Charles’ case wasn’t unjust or unique enough to warrant relief, because there were roughly 5,000 other federal inmates whose status as “career offenders” had led to them being denied early release.

“Indeed, the only thing that appears to distinguish Mr. Charles from others who were found to be Career Offenders years ago and who now show evidence of rehabilitation is that the vast majority of these individuals are still incarcerated while Mr. Charles was released from prison and, thus, had the opportunity to interact with society outside of prison,” U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran wrote.

He may not have been making the point he intended to.

Indeed.

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