Calls for criminal justice reform in Pa. are gathering broad support

  • Jan Murphy, PennLive

PennLive

Matthew Charles, the first person to be released from prison under the federal First Step Act, visited Pennsylvania’s Capitol on Monday to talk about the importance of re-entry and re-integration programs. “We want [ex-offenders] returning better instead of bitter and we also want to invest in them so when they get released they have more incentive to not recidivate,” he said.

Matthew Charles knows well the challenges that come with re-entry into society following incarceration. He’s been through it twice.

Charles, who spent 22 years in federal prison for selling crack cocaine in North Carolina, finally won his freedom in December when he became the first person to be released through the federal First Step Act, which eased mandatory minimum drug sentence.

President Donald Trump, who signed that bipartisan backed bill into law last December, invited Charles to be his guest at this year’s State of the Union. In his remarks, the president said to Charles “Welcome home.

“Those words ‘welcome home’ were funny,” Charles said. “I was actually homeless.”

He spent two months sleeping on a friend’s couch because “I wasn’t able to find a place to stay. I was told that I could stay in the areas that you wouldn’t want somebody being released from prison returning to since they had been taken out of that environment. But yet I was being told those were the only opportunity available to me.”

Charles came to the Pennsylvania Capitol on Monday to join with an array of Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as representatives from a broad spectrum of community organizations to participate in a news conference highlighting the importance of re-entry and re-integration programs.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County, who hosted the event, pointed out more than 20,000 inmates earn parole or complete their prison sentence each year. But within a year of their release, about 40 percent find themselves back behind bars; within three years, 62 percent do.

Bartolotta, who is offering a resolution that seeks to declare June as Re-entry Month in Pennsylvania, said the vast majority of former inmates are non-violent offenders who find their criminal records become lifelong barriers to getting housing, a job, and rejoining society.

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

As for Charles, he said after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, he became a model inmate, organized a Bible study, taught GED courses to other prisoners and took college correspondence courses while in prison.

He earned early release in 2016. He got a job and became a productive member of society until an appeals court sided with federal prosecutors who argued that Charles didn’t qualify for early release. He was ordered back to jail two years after winning his release. His situation caught the attention of a National Public Radio reporter who profiled his story. Then when the First Step Act became law, he won his release.

“We know that 95 percent of people that are incarcerated are going to be returned back to their communities. We want them returning better instead of bitter and we also want to invest in them so when they get released they have more incentive to not recidivate,” Charles said.

That is the goal of the Legislature’s newly formed bi-partisan, bicameral Criminal Justice Caucus. Among its goals are some probation and parole reforms as well as removing barriers to bar individuals with criminal records from obtaining occupational licenses.

“We need to remove barriers and we need to say to people that they deserve a second chance,” said Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County. She called the 2018’s enactment of the Clean Slate Act, which seals low-level criminal records after 10 years without a criminal arrest, a first step.

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said the 62 percent that return to prison cost taxpayers $1.27 billion a year. “You want to invest in roads and bridges? Fix the criminal justice system. You want to invest in education? Fix the criminal justice system. You want to see a decrease in our social services? Fix the criminal justice system. They’re all interconnected.”

Harris said the era of being tough on crime has created an underclass of citizens who can’t get a job, an education, or housing.

“How can we expect people to come back to our society if we the government are putting barriers in their way,” he said. “It’s government’s job to move out of the way so that people can do what we know they have the ability to do. Criminal justice reform is not just the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do.”

 

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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