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.
Take the case of Monae Davis, of Buffalo, New York. He was released under the First Step Act, just like thousands of other inmates.
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.
Rather than basing eligibility on the amount of crack cocaine a prisoner was convicted of having, DOJ officials want it based on the amount of crack court records suggest the inmate may have had. Davis, for example, was convicted of having 50 grams of crack. But at one point, he admitted to having at least 1.5 kilograms of crack, according to Reuters.
This is wrong. Federal judges have rejected the DOJ’s reading of the law in many of these cases, while others have withheld judgment. But DOJ’s actions are having an impact on the act’s effectiveness (with hundreds of applications being frozen) and, no doubt, a chilling psychological effect on those who have been released or are petitioning for release.
As criminal justice reform advocates with a combined 40 years of experience in developing and administering programs that help prisoners reenter society, we can say that what the Justice Department is doing is cruel and unusual. And it will increase recidivism by removing any sense of hope — the antithesis of the legislation’s intent. In our work, we have seen that hopelessness and cynicism about the justice system equal a catalyst for anti-social and criminal behavior.
Those implementing the First Step Act at the Justice Department should adhere to the letter and spirit of this law. The actions of Attorney General William Barr and his Justice Department will determine the success of the legislation. The law should be administered based on its intent, which is to truly give folks a second chance.
We concur with U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara, who rejected the DOJ’s argument when he stated that “Congress says what it means and means what it says, and I don’t have any authority to fiddle with what they’ve said.”
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Barr should make that clear to his attorneys.
Those benefiting from a sentence reduction cannot live in fear and should be provided with the proper training and tools to reenter society. Unfair treatment could adversely impact their ability to successfully assimilate.
Getting this legislation right is critical to the future of criminal justice reform. The First Step Act is just the beginning. The president and many on Capitol Hill and in civil society support even more legislation to alleviate the sentences of inmates and help them transition back to society. If not, cracks may emerge in the coalition and subsequent legislation could falter. Proper implementation will unite and heal our fractured country and be a shining example of what can be done when we come together to act in the nation’s best interest.
Trump has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act as one of his administration’s chief achievements. Now his Justice Department must be held accountable and administer the law the way it was intended by those who wrote it.
The Rev. Fred Davie, the executive vice president of the Union Theological Seminary and a criminal justice reform advocate, formerly served on the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama.
Julio Medina is the founder, executive director and CEO of Exodus Transitional Community, Inc., in New York City, which he started after serving a 12-year prison sentence. He now serves on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Council on Community Reentry and Reintegration.