Matthew Charles was released from Kentucky’s Grayson County Detention Center in January. Charles was convicted of selling 216 grams of crack and illegal possession of a gun. Due to previous convictions, he was designated a “career offender” and sentenced to 35 years. He is the first prisoner released due to the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill aimed at giving drug offenders a “second chance at life.” First Step Act was signed into law on Dec. 21, 2018.
Twenty-two years. That’s how long I spent behind bars before the First Step Act was signed into law — and, just like that, I had a second chance.
And I could never have imagined that just weeks after gaining my freedom and walking out of prison, I would be sitting in the same booth as the first lady at President Trump’s State of the Union Address — a living embodiment to the effects that criminal-justice reform has on real people’s lives and a testament to the power of new beginnings.
I’m not a politician. I’m not a Republican, a Democrat or anything in between. What I am is a believer in second chances, and thanks to Trump and criminal-justice reformers from both parties in Congress, I got my second chance.
And I’m going to make the most of it. I’m giving back, looking forward and charting a new path for my life. My priority is to work with anyone who will work with me to fix a flawed system.
I’m one of the lucky ones. But as I sit here today, millions of Americans remain trapped in our jails and prisons, held back by a decades-long culture of overincarceration. Now, thanks to the First Step Act and a wave of change at the state level, more deserving Americans are getting out, many thanks to commutations and good-time credits.
But once they get out, what happens? Many struggle to find housing and jobs, and to remain productive citizens.
I myself — despite a turn in the spotlight — was turned down for an apartment right after I was released.
And while the unemployment rate is at near-record lows, for people getting out of prison it can be as high as 27 percent. The simple fact is: Landing and keeping a job is the best proven path to keeping folks from turning back to a life of crime. Giving people a second chance doesn’t just help them and their families, it keeps our communities safer.
The good news is that Trump and Congress are working to fix this. The president launched a Second Chance Initiative last month to reduce barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people just like me. He and business leaders know that helping people get jobs is a win for us and a win for the economy.
And the House of Representatives just took a major step, advancing legislation that would prohibit the federal government and federal contractors from discriminating against people with criminal records. It’s called the Fair Chance Act, and was introduced by Republicans Doug Collins (Ga.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Democrats Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Cory Booker (NJ).
It would allow people with arrest records and former prisoners to be considered for federal jobs. The government can, of course, still ask about criminal records, but not until later in the process. It’s a common-sense policy that 33 states across the country have already adopted. And groups from across the political spectrum have endorsed it.
We need bills like these to move forward today, especially since one in three Americans has a criminal record. We cannot afford to wait for the next step. Bills like the First Step Act sat stalled in Congress for years, through control of both parties, before Trump stepped in, gave his full-throated support and finally got the job done.
Right now there are millions of Americans like me waiting for their second chance. We need Congress to pass more criminal-justice reforms. We need to work together and take the next step and offer so our fellow Americans their shot at a better life.
The best thing about a first step is that it should lead to a second, and then a third, and on and on until we truly get things right. That’s exactly what the First Step Act was — the beginning of a long and necessary journey to fix the damage caused by decades of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” policies that left so many people locked in an ineffective system. With help of motivated leaders, it’s time to take the next step.
Matthew Charles was released from Kentucky’s Grayson County Detention Center in January.