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Matthew Charles Becomes One Of The First Inmates To Benefit From First Step Act


The State of the Union is the president's opportunity to lay out his agenda and tout his administration's accomplishments. Over the years, it has become a tradition for the president to invite an eclectic group of guests, each putting a human face on a political message.


Democrats have also gotten in on the act, and members have invited a number of people who illustrate their policy priorities. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has invited two active-duty transgender service members.

SHAPIRO: Freshman House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is bringing the sexual assault survivor who cornered Republican Senator Jeff Flake during the battle over then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Representative Pramila Jayapal from Washington state has invited a climate scientist.

KELLY: California Congressman Jimmy Gomez is bringing a woman who was undocumented when she worked at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey.

SHAPIRO: And the president's guests include 13 people who will sit in the House chamber's balcony with first lady Melania Trump.

KELLY: Right. Among this group - an Ohio mom recovering from opioid abuse. This month she'll mark a year in recovery.

SHAPIRO: Also a man who got his job back after the White House says his lumber plant reopened due to a provision in the tax bill.

KELLY: And Melania Trump will not be the only person named Trump in the balcony. Sixth grader Joshua Trump will join her. The White House says Joshua has been bullied in school because of his last name.

SHAPIRO: Matthew Charles will also be sitting with the first lady. He was recently released from prison. He's one of the first inmates to benefit from a new law called the FIRST STEP Act. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has his story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's been hard to keep track of Matthew Charles during his whirlwind visit to Washington. There were the trips to Capitol Hill, the photo-op with the vice president and now a prime seat for the State of the Union.

MATTHEW CHARLES: So receiving an invitation to the State of the Union as well as to speak with some of the senators was - I mean, to me, it's like hitting the lottery without the check.

JOHNSON: Charles has had a dizzying few years. In 2016 after 21 years in prison, he won early release. Charles got a job, started volunteering and began to rebuild his life. But less than two years later, an appeals court found there had been a mistake with his release, and he was sent back to prison. Matthew Charles' plight attracted national attention. Kevin Ring runs Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for inmates and their families.

KEVIN RING: People saw this was a changed person, and what I fear and what, you know, he and I have talked about is that there's people you don't hear from. If the judge didn't make that mistake, he would have served another nine years, and no one would have ever heard his name.

JOHNSON: Late last year, Congress passed a law called the FIRST STEP Act. Soon after, Charles was freed. Now he says he's trying to take things day by day, but he does have one short-term goal.

CHARLES: March 1, I need to be in my own apartment (laughter), drive my own vehicle because I'm using the, you know, great graces of my friend, you know, at the moment.

JOHNSON: Charles says he wants to use his voice to help other people serving long prison sentences.

CHARLES: For a person with a life sentence, they don't have a release date. You know, they have an expiration date. It's incapacitation as opposed to rehabilitation.

JOHNSON: That includes men he met behind bars who won't ever get a second chance like he did. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.