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Charles set for Speaker Series appearance

Matthew Charles, center, gestures as President Donald Trump acknowledges him during the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

STEUBENVILLE — Area residents who attend Wednesday’s presentation by Matthew Charles will have the opportunity to hear a powerful message about our country’s justice system delivered by a man who knows firsthand how complicated — and frustrating — it can be.

“They can expect to hear my surprising story regarding how I was excessively locked up for 22 years on nonviolent offenses in a penal system devoid of any incentive for rehabilitation,” Charles said last week.

Charles, who in January became the first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act, will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. inside the Steubenville High School Auditorium as part of the Herald-Star Speaker Series.

Among the provisions of the First Step Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump late last year, was a reduction in sentences for crack-cocaine-related offenses. That directly affected Charles, who in 1996 had been sentenced to to 35 years in prison.

While he was in prison, Charles worked to turn his life around, completing more than 30 Bible study classes and becoming a mentor to other inmates. He took college courses, became a law clerk and taught GED classes. He was a regular at the law library, working not only on his case, but helping illiterate prisoners understand letters they received from the courts and drafted filing for them.

After his release in 2016, Charles worked hard to make the most of his second chance at life. He found a job, volunteered at the Little Pantry That Could in Nashville, Tenn., and he began to reconnect with his family. That all changed when his release, which had been ordered by a federal judge who thought a new drug sentencing law applied to his case, was deemed to have been a mistake after an appeal by the government and he was sent back to prison in May 2018.

He was released again in January after the legislation was passed and signed into law last December, and since then he has worked to serve the poor and has been an advocate on behalf of those he had left behind, pushing for additional prison reforms that will recognize that people can change.

Overall, Charles wrote in Feb. 1 op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post, the act’s sentencing and prison reforms will benefit more then 150,000.

That’s a good first step, he said, but there are more concerns waiting to be addressed in legislation that has been dubbed the Next Step Act.

“That is not one, but a series of steps that are necessary to end the epidemic of mass incarceration, over sentencing, barriers to re-entry and felony stigma attached afterward by society at large,” Charles explained.

Those chances were incorporated in a bill presented in March by Sen. Cory Booker , D-N.J., and U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. Among its provisions, the bill would eliminate the sentencing differences between crack and powder cocaine, help those leaving prison get the documentation they need to return to society and reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

“It is important for Congress to seize on the momentum of what happened with the passage of the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that passed overwhelmingly in the house and senate and that also was propelled and signed by the president,” Charles said.

It’s the most significant legislation involving our criminal justice system and prison reform in three decades, he added.

Reserved seat tickets for Wednesday’s presentation cost $20 each and are available by contacting Diana Brown at the Herald-Star offices, 401 Herald Square, during regular business hours. The telephone number is (740) 283-4711. Tickets will be available at the door.

A limited number of tickets remain for a VIP reception with Charles that will be held beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Steubenville YWCA. VIP packages cost of $100 for a couple and $75 for a single ticket. That package includes admission to the private reception; a selection of beer, wine and hors d’oeuvres; the opportunity to meet Charles and have a photograph taken with him; and preferred seating for the presentation. Contact Brown for details.

Students from area middle and high schools will have the opportunity to attend the presentation at no charge. Those interested should contact their principal’s office.

Eastern Gateway Community College and Trinity Health System are the presenting sponsors of the series. Other sponsors include the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Jefferson Count Chamber of Commerce and WTRF-TV. Special support is being provided by the Inn and Suites at Franciscan Square, Piergallini Catering, Steubenville High School, Newbrough Photo, Hertz-Thrifty Car Rental and the YWCA.

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