FAMM Advocate Testifies at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on First Step Act – FAMM

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FAMM Advocate Testifies at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on First Step Act

Categories: Federal Bureau of Prisons, Press Release, Safety Valve, Second Chances

For Media Inquiries:John Norton, 202-999-4268jnorton@famm.org

FAMM Advocate Testifies at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on First Step Act

Wednesday’s hearing on the five-year anniversary of the transformative criminal justice legislation featured testimony from Matthew Charles, who was the first person released from prison early through the bill.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Wednesday, January 17, FAMM Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Charles testified in front of the full Senate Judiciary Committee as a guest of Committee Chair Senator Dick Durbin at a hearing to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the bipartisan passage of the First Step Act, a landmark criminal justice reform bill. The hearing, “Five Years of the First Step Act: Reimagining Rehabilitation and Potential Public Safety,” gave Charles the opportunity to share the positive impacts of the First Step Act and testify to additional criminal justice reform laws that are still needed in the United States.

Charles, who spent 21 years in prison serving a 35-year sentence before his release, was the very first person to benefit from the First Step Act. The First Step Act eased some of the United States’ most punitive sentencing laws and retroactively applied reforms made by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. During his testimony, Charles took the opportunity to share how the First Step Act has given him and others like him a second chance and how it has motivated his advocacy for further criminal justice reform.

“I have had a lot of amazing life moments since my release,” said Charles. “I was the guest of President Trump at the 2019 State of the Union. I have met senators from across the country, including many on this committee. But the most rewarding experience and the most important work I have done has been advocating for those I left behind. There are a lot of people like me who are committed to making changes and finding a new path, who do not need to spend decades in prison to learn their lesson. I’ve been working hard for a system that is fair and just, and doesn’t harm families and communities by keeping people incarcerated unnecessarily.”

Charles also refuted the argument that legislation like the First Step Act has come at the cost of public safety, saying that this argument doesn’t line up with his personal experience working with justice-impacted people who have benefitted from the First Step Act.

“I’ve told you my story, but I am not special. I am not unique,” said Charles. “In my advocacy work, I have met many, many beneficiaries of the First Step Act who are out here in freedom, making their families stronger and their communities safer…. Because of the First Step Act, some of our country’s most excessive and unfair sentencing practices – misguided sentencing laws meant to keep us safer, which in reality had the opposite effect – have been reformed. This means that dangerous overcrowding in prisons is decreasing. Rehabilitation rates are on the rise, and thousands of families like mine have been reunited and are stronger.”

FAMM Vice President of Policy Daniel Landsman adds that fears that people who have been released through the First Step Act would reoffend are not supported by data revealing the legislation’s impact over the past five years.

“Of the nearly 30,000 people released under the First Step Act, only 12.4 percent have been re-arrested or returned to federal custody,” Landsman says. “This is much lower than the general federal recidivism rate of 43 percent. Between 2022 and 2023, participation in rehabilitative programming and productive activities in prisons has jumped by more than a third. Thanks to the First Step Act, people in federal prison, the vast majority of whom will be released one day, are better prepared to return to their families and communities and be productive, law-abiding members of society.”

Ultimately, both Landsman and Charles conclude that the First Step Act is still only what it was intended to be — a first step. Moving forward, they both urge Congress to continue reforming outdated sentencing laws and improving conditions of confinement and rehabilitation within our prison system.

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FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safely reduce incarceration, save taxpayer dollars, and keep families together. Founded in 1991, FAMM has secured bold sentencing and prison reform across the country while elevating the voices of directly impacted individuals and families.

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