PA Matthew Charles 6-10-2019

Former federal inmate Matthew Charles, who was allowed to remain free under the auspices of the federal First Step Act signed into law by President Trump, addresses a news conference June 10, 2019, in Harrisburg on recidivism and criminal justice reform.

Matthew Charles spent more than 20 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense. During that time, he attended Bible studies, took classes and was a model prisoner.

He was out of prison for two years when the federal government won an appeal of his release. He was about to be sent back, but instead became the first person released under the federal First Step Program created by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.

Charles appeared with a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers at a news conference this week to support a resolution by Republican Sen. Camera Bartolotta declaring June as “re-entry month,” which focuses on recidivism rates and the barriers prisoners face when they re-enter society. Bartolotta co-chairs the bipartisan Senate Criminal Justice Reform Caucus with Democratic Sen. Art Haywood.

“The previous decade’s tough on crime mentality has resulted in higher recidivism rates, broken families and misused and wasted tax dollars,” Bartolotta said.

Of the estimated 20,000 people released from prison, 40 percent will be rearrested within a year and 63 percent will be rearrested in three years, Bartolotta said.

The issue is not a Democratic or Republican issue, said Rep. Jordan Harris, the House Democratic Whip. It’s about people, and it’s time to put people over politics, he said.

“Our criminal justice system has not been about rehabilitation,” Harris said. “It’s been about retaliation.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers are focusing on criminal justice reform, a process that began with the passage of the state’s Clean Slate Law last year. Those convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors will have their criminal records erased if they pay their fines and do not commit any other offenses for 10 years after their conviction. The law is the first of its kind in the country and now other states are considering similar legislation, said Jenna Moll, deputy director of the Justice Action Network.

Releasing nonviolent inmates from jail is just part of the challenge, the group said. Work needs to be done to help the inmates find jobs and housing once they are released.

Charles was sleeping on a friend’s couch when he appeared at this year’s State of the Union Address with President Donald Trump and found it ironic that Trump said to him, “Welcome home.” He had difficulty finding housing, even with the help of celebrity Kim Kardashian West.

“The felony stigma cried louder,” Charles said.

When inmates are able to become productive members of society, they are no longer a tax burden but are taxpayers, Harris said.

“It’s not just the right thing to do,” Harris said “It’s the wise thing to do.”