In 1995, Matthew Charles of Tennessee was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for a non-violent drug offense. An eventual change in federal law allowed Charles to become a free man in 2016. He spent about 21 years of his life behind prison walls.

Matthew Charles (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

After Charles was released, he got a job. He gained a church family. He had an apartment and a truck. Charles would say that he was on the right path and a productive member of society.

Two years later, the federal government won an appeal and sent Charles back to prison to serve out the rest of his term.

He served another seven months in prison by the time President Donald Trump caught wind of Matthews’ situation. Last December, Trump signed into law an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system – making Matthews the first offender released from prison. As Trump touted the revamped system during this year’s State of the Union address, he introduced Matthews as his special guest.

At a press conference Monday in Jefferson City, Matthews stood with a bipartisan group working to make sweeping changes to the Missouri’s criminal justice system. The Missouri House’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform is introducing this week the wide-ranging package designed to reduce the number of people behind bars.

“Mass incarceration or long, extensive sentences need to be changed because it’s not actually thwarting people from committing a crime,” he says at the Missouri Capitol. “It’s actually causing them to be sentenced to a disproportionate amount of time for the crime that they commit.”

The measures include relaxing prison sentences for non-violent offenders, a ban on shackling pregnant offenders, providing female prisoners with feminine hygiene products, allowing felons to work at places with alcohol and lottery tickets and banning jail time for defendants who fail to pay jail bills.  A longtime practice by local Missouri judges has been to throw people in the slammer for not paying previous jail bills.

Rep. Shamed Dogan (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

Missouri has the 8th largest prison population in the country with roughly 29,600 offenders. Representative Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, is the chairman of the committee. He says Missouri is locking up the wrong people for too much and for too long.

“The facts are, that the better you treat people, including women, when they are incarcerated, the lower our recidivism rate. The fact is, we have unnecessarily increased arrests and sentences for non-violent offenders and for probation violations in Missouri. At the same time, we’ve had arrests for violent crime decrease at the same time violent crimes are increasing,” says Dogan.

He says some legislators characterize major changes to the criminal justice system as being “soft on crime”.

“They (the bills) will all help us save enormous amounts of taxpayer money while also improving public safety,” Dogan says. “They’ll give people who’ve made mistakes in their lives a chance to be treated with dignity while incarcerated and to have more of a chance of rebuilding their lives whenever they get out.”

According to Molly Gill with the Washington, D.C.-based organization Families for Justice Reform, more than 35 states in America have eliminated mandatory prison sentences or significantly reformed them. She calls the efforts a win-win.

“We want a more cost-effective criminal justice system in Missouri,” Gill says. “Crimes continue to go down. Families are reunited sooner. People get fairer punishments. There’s an increased respect for the justice system.”

Craig DeRoche with Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, says the move is not just a cost-saving effort.

“We also look at it from a moral standpoint,” says DeRoche. “This is one of the top issues in the Christian community in Missouri.”

DeRoche, a former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, says his faith-based organization provides services to more than 300,000 prisoners each year.

Similar bills are also making their way through the Missouri Senate.

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