Man whose story helped sell lawmakers on First Step Act wins release under its provisions

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After a federal appeals court ordered Matthew Charles back to prison to finish a lengthy sentence for selling crack cocaine, supporters of the First Step Act used his case as an example.

Now Charles has won his freedom under a provision of the bill signed last month by President Donald Trump. The provision authorizes courts to retroactively apply a 2010 law that reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger of Nashville ordered Charles’ release in an order Thursday, report NPR and the Tennessean.

Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison after his 1996 conviction for selling crack. While behind bars, he was a model prisoner. He took college courses and Bible classes, mentored other prisoners and helped them draft legal papers.

Charles was released from prison when a federal judge reduced his sentence in 2016, and Charles lived nearly two years as a free man, according to a motion that sought to reduce his sentence.

“During that time,” the motion said, Charles “proved himself to be a remarkably virtuous person, gaining the support of respected members of the community.” According to NPR, Charles held a steady job and spent nearly every Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry.

The initial judge who ordered Charles’ release in 2016 was U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp. He resigned from the bench in April 2017 and denounced mandatory minimum sentences in an interview the next day.

Sharp’s order freeing Charles was overturned by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, and Trauger reimposed the original sentence last year, saying her hands were tied, according to NBC News.

Charles went back to prison to serve 10 more years last May. The 6th Circuit rejected a new appeal by Charles in August.

Sharp told the Tennessean that “justice prevailed here.” Charles was “a poster child for why this act was needed,” he said.

Sharp had mentioned Charles’ case in a meeting with Trump, according to the Tennessean.

Sharp told the Tennessean that there are thousands of similar cases in the criminal justice system. “We can’t quit,” he said.

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