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Matthew Charles, President Trump’s State of the Union guest, advocates for criminal justice reform in Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Nearly three months ago, Tennessee-native Matthew Charles was finally released from prison, after spending more than 21 years behind bars, thanks to a sweeping criminal justice reform bill signed by President Trump. And on Monday, Charles stood among lawmakers in the Missouri Capitol advocating for more statewide reform.

Charles, who gained national attention after television personality Kim Kardashian West advocated on his behalf and Trump acknowledged him during his State of the Union address earlier this year, was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine and illegally possessing a gun. He was only 30-years-old at the time.

In prison, Charles became a Christian, didn’t incur any infractions on his record, and took college courses, eventually becoming a law clerk. After serving 21 years of his sentence, Charles was mistakenly released. And in May 2018 — despite Charles’ efforts to establish a life in his community — he was ordered back to prison.

With the passage of the First Step Act, which reformed sentencing laws, Charles was released from prison on Jan. 3, becoming one of the first people to benefit from the law, according to the White House.

Later this week, Rep. Shamed Dogan and other members of the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice plan to introduce the Missouri First Step Act (HCB2) that at its core will include several criminal justice reform measures championed by an array of state lawmakers as well as provisions included in the federal law, Dogan, the committee’s Republican chairman, said.

“Short and simple: we’re locking up the wrong people, and we’re locking them up for too much and for too long, and we need to stop that in the state of Missouri.”

The bill will give felons the ability to work in grocery and convenience stores, provide free feminine hygiene products for incarcerated women, reform mandatory minimum language, and eliminate the jailing of people who cannot afford to pay board bills or so-called “debtors’ prisons,” among other things, Dogan said.

“Just like the federal First Step Act, these measures are all evidence-based, they will all help us save enormous amounts of taxpayer money while also improving public safety, and will give people who made mistakes in their lives a chance to be treated with dignity while incarcerated and to have more of a chance of rebuilding their lives when they get out,” Dogan said.

“We’ve had people in this legislature characterize criminal justice reform as somehow soft on crime, and I’m reminded of the saying … ‘facts don’t care about your feelings,’” Dogan continued. “The facts are: the better you treat people, including women, when they’re incarcerated, the lower the recidivism rate. The fact is that we’ve unnecessarily increased arrests and sentences for nonviolent offenders and for probation violations in Missouri. At the same time, we’ve had arrests for violent crime decrease, at the same time violent crimes are increasing.”

Rep. Shamed Dogan

“Short and simple: we’re locking up the wrong people, and we’re locking them up for too much and for too long, and we need to stop that in the state of Missouri.”

Charles praised Missouri lawmakers for pushing the criminal justice reform bill, saying he’s “excited about the fact they’re acknowledging there is an epidemic of mass incarceration and over-sentencing people.”

“To be able to come here to the state of Missouri, to be able to go to different states as a criminal justice reform advocate for [Families Against Mandatory Minimums] … to me is an honor,” Charles told The Missouri Times. “But I’m blessed to see that these places, these states, are willing to review their criminal justice system because, in effect, it’s not working.”

Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums [FAMM] pointed to the diversity among those standing in support of criminal justice reform Monday — those with different political ideologies and religious beliefs.

“It’s one of the reasons that I think so many of us up here love working on these issues because we get to work with people maybe we don’t agree on anything else with, but we still get to work together on this one thing because we all want a safer Missouri, we want a more cost-effective corrections system in Missouri, and we want people to get justice and be treated with dignity,” Gill said.

Aside from lawmakers and FAMM, representatives from the Missouri Century Foundation, Empower Missouri, and Americans for Prosperity-Missouri were also on hand to show support for criminal justice reform Monday.

The House already passed legislation earlier this year allowing judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for some nonviolent offenders in an effort for greater rehabilitation. Similar legislation passed out of committee Monday in the Senate, although that version does tighten the qualification guidelines.