Mass incarceration: it’s the prosecutors (stupid)

Last spring I assigned John Pfaff’s truly eye-opening Locked In, about the realities of mass incarceration in America.  Sooo good.  Short version– it’s the prosecutors.  Medium version– this post.  Long version– the book.

Anyway, some recent really good news had me thinking about this.  Summary from Mark Joseph Stern:

Matthew Charles, a rehabilitated felon whose mistaken release and reincarceration drew nationwide outcry, will be freed from prison on Thursday at the order of a federal judge. Charles, who already served 20 years in prison, received a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that President Donald Trump signed on Dec. 21…

But Sharp made a mistake. The law did not permit early release for offenders who, like Charles, were deemed “career criminals.” So prosecutors appealed Sharp’s decision [emphasis mine], and in December 2016, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Charles back to prison. By that point, the ex-offender had fully re-entered society: He spent every Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry in North Nashville, Tennessee, mentored young men on probation or parole, reconnected with his children and grandchildren, obtained a job, and began a relationship. The 6th Circuit even acknowledged that Charles had amassed a record “not only of rehabilitation but of ‘good works,’ ” and suggested that Trump should consider commuting his sentence.

But Trump granted no clemency, and in 2018—after living nearly two years as a free man—Charles reported back to prison to serve the remaining decade of his sentence…

His case sparked outrage across the political spectrum and helped create momentum for the First Step Act, which made the 2010 reforms fully retroactive. That meant even “career criminals” like Charles sentenced under the old, stringent guidelines could petition for early release. On Dec. 27, public defenders asked a federal court to release Charles for time served, and federal prosecutors did not object. And on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger ordered Charles’ immediate release.

See that bold.  Prosecutors made the absurd and downright stupid decision to force a man so obviously rehabilitated, who as doing good in his community, and had already been punished a lot, back into prison for potentially ten years.  What the hell?

I decided I needed to see what John Pfaff had to say back in May:

And the nice Reason piece taking on the truly damnable federal prosecutor.

Of course even most of the prosecutors who are ultimately responsible for our way over-incarceration are good people and good public servants, but, clearly not all of them.  And, we need to do something about prosecutors and the system they work in if we are truly going to meaningfully tackle mass incarceration.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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