Author: The Blanch Law Firm July 4, 2018

There has been lots of chatter in the news lately about pardons – who can receive them, who should (or shouldn’t) be able to receive them, and even scenarios where pardons are perhaps wrongly withheld. But there has been criticism as well, with the Justice Department having a backlog of over 11,000 cases. Matthew Charles is one such case where a pardon seems like the only right thing to do.

In 1996, Mr. Charles, like many other young black men, was sentenced to 35 years in a federal prison. He was convicted of selling crack cocaine. Yet, by all measures, he became a model prisoner. He took college courses, became a law clerk, and helped teach his fellow inmates while there. In 2016, thanks to the federal government and its new program of leniency on non-violent drug offenders. He embraced his freedom, falling in love, volunteering at a food pantry, and finding work. Yet this was short – lived. In April 2018, Mr. Charles was sent back to prison when a federal court decided that he did not qualify for early release. He had been deemed a ‘violent offender’ over 20 years earlier, and so could not qualify for the program’s benefits.

His defense lawyers will ask the Justice Department for a commutation of the rest of his sentence – along with 9,000 other prisoners in line ahead of him. He seems like the perfect candidate for a pardon, although he is not asking for one. With the current administration not shy about issuing them (five people in 17 months), he should be considered. But, Mr. Trump has more frequently used his constitutional power to pardon political supporters rather than those who meet essential guidelines.

Applicants for a pardon must demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and that they have led productive lives after being released for a significant period of time. Another factor is any recommendations of federal prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement. The pardon system is also slow due to its lack of resources, and the time that is necessary to properly vet a case. Of the 11,000 backlogged cases, only 2,800 cases have been filed in 17 months. Mr. Trump has denied 180 pardon and sentence-reduction applications. Mr. Charles is simply asking for a reduction in his sentence and has admitted responsibility and remorse for the crimes committed decades ago. His case appeals to both aisles – Democrats and Republicans alike have asked the President for a pardon on his behalf. Some cite the cost to taxpayers upon his return to prison – approximately $55,000.00 a year for one prisoner.

But the relationship between the President and his Justice Department is tenuous, at best. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already instructed his prosecutors to ask for the most severe penalties allowed, including mandatory minimum sentences, as was the case in Mr. Charles’ situation. Yet, by and large, federal prosecutors also believe that Mr. Charles is a good candidate to receive a commuted sentence. His case has brought to light issues with the pardon and commutation system, as well as the failure of mandatory minimum sentences to take into account the possibility of rehabilitation. It seems unlikely that Mr. Trump will take an interest in Mr. Charles’s story – but stranger things have happened.

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