Federal sentencing overhaul leads to Tennessee man’s release

In this Dec. 17, 2017, file photo, Matthew Charles, who was released from prison after 21 years as a result of retroactive drug sentencing guideline changes, discusses his legal challenges at Nashville Public Radio in Nashville, Tenn. Charles will be one of the first prisoners to be released under a sweeping criminal justice reform law recently signed by President Donald Trump thanks to a federal judge's ruling on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (Julieta Martinelli/Nashville Public Radio via AP, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee man will be one of the first prisoners to be released under a sweeping criminal justice reform law recently signed by President Donald Trump thanks to a federal judge’s ruling on Thursday.

Matthew Charles received national attention in 2018 after being re-sentenced and ordered back to prison two years after a judge ruled his sentence was unfair. However, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger specifically cited the First Step Act as the reason she was reducing the sentence for the 52-year-old Charles.

“The defendant having already served the sentences imposed on the other counts in this case, is entitled to immediate release,” Trauger wrote in her decision.

The day before, federal prosecutors told the court they would neither appeal nor fight if Charles’s sentence was reduced.

“Because Congress has now enacted a new law that does appear to make Charles legally eligible for a reduced sentence, the government does not object to the court exercising its discretion to reduce Charles’s sentence,” federal prosecutors wrote in their Wednesday response.

Trump signed the law Dec. 21. It aims to reduce recidivism among federal prisoners, and also reduces guidelines for crack offenses, making those changes retroactive. Specifically, the law allows about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before late 2010 the opportunity to petition for a lighter penalty.

“I’m happy to see one of the first success stories from the First Step Act,” tweeted Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “I look forward to seeing more from our important criminal justice reform.”

Charles, who is currently incarcerated at a Kentucky county jail, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine in 1996. He spent 21 years in prison without facing any disciplinary actions while taking college courses and mentoring other prisoners.

His federal defense attorneys filed a motion soon after First Step was enacted, arguing Charles would be sentenced to fewer years in prison if the case happened today.

“Matthew earned a second chance and today a federal judge gave it to him, corrected a grave injustice,” said Shon Hopwood, an associate law professor at Georgetown Law, who began representing Charles last spring and helped fight for the passage of First Step.

Hopwood, in a phone interview on Thursday, said Charles was still a “little bit in shock” when they talked earlier that day. Hopwood added that while he is a strong advocate of First Step — where he often used Charles as a prime example of why the bill’s passage was needed when talking to congressional members — he had been fighting for clemency for Charles rather than a time-served ruling from a federal court.

“I don’t think he really thought this was going to happen,” Hopwood said. “He kept the faith, but First Step wasn’t originally what we were fighting for. He’s just elated.”

Hopwood said he didn’t know when exactly Charles would be released, but said the federal government has no legal reason to detain Charles starting tomorrow.