First Step Act failing some who live in fear after release

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

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Matthew Charles was jailed in 1996 for selling crack cocaine. A model prisoner (organizing Bible study, mentoring other prisoners and taking college courses), Charles was released for good behavior in 2016 by a federal judge. However, overzealous federal prosecutors fought the judge’s ruling, an appeals court concurred and Charles was ordered back to prison. 

Charles’ second release was made possible by the First Step Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018 amid much fanfare and support by a bipartisan coalition that included the ACLU and the Koch network.

“I refused to be bitter or angry. I got myself into the situation that I was in. And I did have a 35-year sentence,” said Charles in an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt five days after his second release from prison last year. 

Now the act that Congress passed could lead others to face the same unfortunate reincarceration fate that Charles faced — all because the Justice Department is not implementing the First Step Act based on the letter and spirit of the law.

COLUMN:To end mass incarceration, U.S. needs alternatives to prison for violent crimes

Take the case of Monae Davis, of Buffalo, New York. He was released under the First Step Act, just like thousands of other inmates. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

Now U.S. attorneys, operating on guidance from Justice Department officials in Washington, are opposing his sentence reduction. Sentenced in 2009, Davis sold crack cocaine, a crime that incarcerated him and others at a rate of 100 years to one compared with powder cocaine convictions. Under the First Step Act, his 20-year prison sentence was reduced to time served. As Davis attempts to rebuild his life, he spends every day in torture awaiting a judge’s ruling, knowing that he may be reincarcerated this year — a brutal, unfair and debilitating uncertainty.

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