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Booker Statement on First Prisoner Released Due to First Step Act Reforms

Booker key architect of landmark criminal justice bill passed last month

January 4, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Judiciary Committee and co-author of the First Step Act, issued the below statement following news that the first person has been released from a federal prison due to the sentencing reform guidelines passed and signed into law last month.

One of those provisions made retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the egregious sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine - disparities that overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect African-Americans. Matthew Charles, who was serving a 35-year sentence for cocaine charges from 1996, was released last night from a federal prison in Kentucky.

"The First Step Act was designed to be a step forward in making our prison system more just and more fair, and last night's release of Matthew Charles is bearing witness to that goal. Matthew is a textbook example of how our criminal justice system often unfairly incarcerates individuals, particularly people of color, long after they have served the time commensurate with their crime.

"Matthew was sentenced on crack cocaine charges at a time when the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine charges was 100 to 1. The First Step Act addresses this egregious and racist disparity, so thousands of people like Matthew that were sentenced under unfair guidelines will be eligible for freedom.

"We call this system a justice system for a reason-- it is not meant to be a system of retribution. It is meant to be about justice - about the ideals of restoration and rehabilitation. Ultimately this is the promise of the United States of America and we should all believe that we are a nation where redemption is possible. Matthew's story is a testament to our nation’s capacity for such redemption."

Booker was a key architect of the First Step Act, which passed the Senate on December 18, 2018, and was signed into law on December 21. He was instrumental in adding key sentencing provisions to the package after opposing the House-passed version of the First Step Act first released in May 2018. The sentencing provisions in the final bill include: reducing the “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years; giving judges greater discretion to circumvent mandatory minimum sentences when warranted; eliminating the so-called “stacking” of mandatory minimum sentence enhancements related to certain firearm offenses; and making retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the egregious sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine -- disparities that overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect African-Americans.

Booker also successfully fought to include provisions that effectively eliminate the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal supervision.

The legislation also includes provisions Booker has long advocated for that ban the shackling of pregnant inmates and require that healthcare products be provided to incarcerated women.

Driven by his experience living and working in Newark and serving on its city council and as its mayor, Booker has made reforming our broken criminal justice system a key legislative priority during his time in the Senate. Over the past five years, Booker has introduced numerous criminal justice reform proposals, including: the REDEEM Act, the CARERS Act, the PRIDE Act, the MERCY Act, the Fair Chance Act, the Equal Justice Under Law Act, the Gideon Act, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, and the Marijuana Justice Act.

In February 2015, Booker joined Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) to author the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act. After months of negotiations, in October 2015, Booker was part of a bipartisan group of Senators to announce a landmark comprehensive criminal justice reform compromise, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The legislation was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but didn’t advance through the Senate because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) didn’t bring it up for a vote.

In October 2017, Booker and the co-authors of the (added space here) Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act renewed their push for comprehensive reform. Booker has worked publicly and behind the scenes since to advocate for meaningful reform that would impact those most marginalized by our broken criminal justice system.