Criminal Justice Legislation Means Nothing Without Follow-Through

Sentencing disparities and felon disenfranchisement can end on paper, but the stigmatization that comes with incarceration remains

When President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act last December — the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation in the past eight years — he wanted credit. He chose to take it in the form of Matthew Charles. By inviting the newly released Tennessee man to February’s State of the Union address and displaying him as an example of a black man whom he’d saved, the president earned some See, I’m Actually Not Racist cred with the sliver of American voters who might buy that. Charles’ appearance also let Trump sing the praises of his terribly flawed law as if it had finished the entire job of criminal justice reform (even if he’d later shortchange it in his proposed budget). Easy-peasy.

In a different way, the same could be said for Florida’s Amendment 4, the ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved last November. Under the new state law, an estimated 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people would once again be able to register to vote. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate voted “yes” on Amendment 4 — the bipartisan will of Floridians, clearly stated. Again, easy, right?

Alas, this is America. Months after these two victories, reality has reminded us that ending the stigmatization of the incarcerated may be the true challenge. It is utterly Sisyphean, largely because so many are pushing against progress.

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The Washington Post reported Monday that the 51-year-old is now crashing on a friend’s couch back in Nashville, the city where Charles had been living before the U.S. government yanked him back behind bars after he was erroneously released under the Obama-era Fair Sentencing Act. Now, nearly three months out of prison, Charles saw his apartment applications denied by landlords at at least two properties reportedly because he is a former felon.

Kim Kardashian West is lending a hand. The reality star, whose advocacy for sentencing reform helped secure clemency for great-grandmother Alice Johnson last June, has reportedly offered to help Charles with his apartment search.

Trump finished his exploitative message at the State of the Union by telling Charles “Welcome home,” as if the Lincoln Bedroom was available. But the problem with using people as props is that they can be so easily discarded, even after just one scene. Now, Charles is one of the many formerly incarcerated Americans who struggle to find housing after being released, thanks in large part to the assumptions that come with the status “former felon.”

Charles’ second denial was particularly disappointing because he had Kardashian West, of all people, as his guarantor. The reality star later solicited properties to give Charles a chance, offering to pay several months of his rent in advance.

According to the Post, Kardashian West’s intervention has been helpful and Charles and his friend have been getting some offers. But what about all the other former felons who lack celebrity connections? Charles’ struggles highlight a national crisis: according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s report last August, the formerly incarcerated are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. People like Charles who have been imprisoned more than once have homelessness rates 13 times higher than the those who have not been incarcerated. The problem is especially dire for those who are black and Hispanic. Citizens who have experienced incarceration have enough issues with readjustment, financial and otherwise, without having to deal with unfair treatment or illegal discrimination.

“It’s tough for a person with a criminal record to find housing even though you’ve paid your debt to society, and have made significant changes in your life,” Charles said in a statement issued Monday. “As a nation, if we want to reduce recidivism we can’t make it hard for people coming out of prison to succeed.”

America’s prison system shares many a thread with slavery, and the 13th Amendment is part of that heritage. African-Americans are nearly six times as likely as white people to be locked up; Hispanic-Americans are slightly more than three times as likely. There is an inherent implication that with the punishment for a crime comes a deprivation of dignity and rights. None of that is necessary for rehabilitation; quite the opposite, actually. The kind of punishment that Charles describes is an imprisonment that goes beyond the walls, and it is in the interest of certain people in power to maintain that status quo. Diminishing the formerly incarcerated serves no purpose other than the aggrandizement of the powerful; regular folks do it all the time, though, to feel bigger.

It’s likely why we aren’t seeing marches in the street to protest what Florida legislators are currently doing to sabotage Amendment 4, which newly elected Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and many other Republicans opposed. The party line on this is that the amendment is somehow too confusing to implement, as if it’s written in Sanskrit. Desmond Meade, who led the charge for A4’s passage’s as the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told MSNBC Wednesday night that the bill’s language had been approved by the state’s Supreme Court. There is nothing ambiguous about it: it enables former felons to register to vote — unless they have committed severe crimes, such as murder, that would disqualify them.  

Still, a Republican-controlled committee advanced a bill this week that not only would supposedly clarify the language to the GOP’s liking, but would force all former felons to pay all of their court fees and fines before they were permitted to register. That is not something that Florida voters approved, and despite the indignation of the bill’s Republican sponsor, it appears to be a poll tax in spirit and practice. That’s unconstitutional, of course, and should this advance to DeSantis’ desk for signature, civil rights groups will surely sue the state of Florida into oblivion.

Here is the strangest part of both the Charles predicament and the Florida mess: If people simply chose to treat the formerly incarcerated by the letter of the law, and like fellow citizens, we could avoid all of this. Just allow Charles to rent an apartment, with or without outside help. The man displayed model character and served his time. So did the folks in Florida who want a say in the democracy that lords over their lives. It is evident who is threatened by that prospect. I’d describe this kind of behavior as “criminal” if it didn’t reflect badly upon the formerly incarcerated. That kind of talk is partly why we live in a nation where a president can issue clemency with the stroke of a pen and voters can expand democracy, but a prison sentence never really ends.

Editor’s Note: Days after this column was published, Matthew Charles secured a duplex apartment in Nashville. According to the Tennessean, he moved in on March 23rd and Kardashian-West will be covering his rent for five years.

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