Criminal Justice

Trump Recognizes 2 Formerly Incarcerated People in State of the Union Speech

"America is a Nation that believes in redemption."


Doug Mills/picture alliance / Consolidated/Newscom

President Donald Trump recognized two formerly incarcerated people in his 2019 State of the Union speech Tuesday night, applauding the success of criminal justice reforms and the recently enacted FIRST STEP Act.

Matthew Charles and Alice Marie Johnson were two of the White House guests for the State of the Union speech. Their draconian drug sentences drew national attention (including reporting by Reason), which ultimately led to their early release from federal prison.

"Last year, I heard through friends the story of Alice Johnson," Trump said. "I was deeply moved. In 1997, Alice was sentenced to life in prison as a first-time non-violent drug offender. Over the next two decades, she became a prison minister, inspiring others to choose a better path […] Alice's story underscores the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing—and the need to remedy this injustice."

Johnson was serving a life sentence in federal prison for a drug conspiracy offense when mega-celebrity Kim Kardashian learned of her case. During her decades in prison, Johnson became an ordained minister, wrote several plays, and was a role model to countless other inmates. Kardashian made a personal appeal to Trump to commute Johnson's sentence.

Trump commuted Johnson's sentence in June.

As Reason reported, Johnson gave a speech at Georgetown University after her release:

I don't take freedom lightly, because this is a gift I have received. It's a miracle. I try to speak from my heart. I don't have a prepared speech. I may not have the most glowing and fancy words, but what you hear from me is straight from the heart. I don't feel that I was denied or delayed. I was destined for this. I believe the Lord has raised up my voice for such a time as this, that this is the moment he called me into to speak out, to be not just a number, to not just be someone that they read about, but a human being. It's an issue that should prick the conscious of every American citizen that sees what happened to me, to know that but for the grace of God, I could have been them, and they could have been me.

Bolstered by Trump's willingness to recognize cases like Johnson's, supporters of criminal justice reform worked for months to sway the president to support the FIRST STEP Act, a major piece of criminal justice reform then moving through Congress. Trump's eventual support, over the objections of staunch opponents of mandatory minimum reform, helped solidify Republican support. When the bill finally made it to the Senate floor, it passed easily.

"Inspired by stories like Alice's, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law," Trump said. "This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption."

Trump also highlighted the story of Matthew Charles, one of the first people to secure an early release under the new legislation.

As Reason reported, Charles was originally released early from a 35-year federal prison sentence for a crack cocaine offense. However, a federal appeals court ruled that, because of his status as a "career offender," he should have never been eligible for early release. As a result, he was sent back to federal prison last year after two years of freedom, during which time he had reconnected with his family, found a job and girlfriend, and volunteered every weekend at a food pantry.

Charles then became one of the first people to have his sentence reduced under the FIRST STEP Act, which made previous reductions to crack cocaine sentences apply retroactively. He was released yet again on time served in January.

"On behalf of all Americans," Trump said to Charles during his speech, "welcome home."

Trump's comments were a departure from his inaugural speech, which warned of "American carnage" from out-of-control crime, as well as his criticisms of Barack Obama's clemency initiative, which he said released dangerous criminals onto the streets.

Criminal justice advocates, who worked to convince the president to support the bill, applauded him for highlighting the cases of Johnson and Charles.

"Alice Johnson and Matthew Charles are proof that people who make mistakes can do extraordinary things if given a second chance," Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and a frequent visitor at the White House during the push to pass the FIRST STEP Act. "The bipartisan First Step Act is already helping people transform their lives and we applaud the president for working with both parties to pass this landmark legislation. As our country takes the next step on criminal justice reform, we'll continue uniting with anyone who shares our goal of safer communities and fewer barriers for those who have paid their debt to society."

Holly Harris , the executive director of the Justice Action Network, announced in a press release Tuesday night that, along with the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM, her organization would be funding a fellowship for Charles to raise awareness of the criminal justice system.

"We cannot think of a more compelling voice than that of Mr. Charles to share the positive results from the First Step Act and build on the momentum created by the passage of this landmark legislation," she said. "Though he is a free man, Mr. Charles remains focused on the thousands of families still awaiting a homecoming for their loved ones, and we pledge to work alongside him, and with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, toward swift implementation of the First Step Act, and more aggressive reforms in Washington and in states all across the country."

NEXT: Trump Denounces 'Endless War,' Teases Aggressive Stance on Venezuela in SOTU Address

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26 responses to “Trump Recognizes 2 Formerly Incarcerated People in State of the Union Speech

  1. I would be curious to hear how the Reason staff squares this sort of thing with their absolute religious conviction that Trump isn’t just a bad President but a bad person. Trump gets minimal political benefit from this. If he were just interested in maximum political benefit, he would be playing the law and order card like every other politician. It is the cheapest and easiest way to drum up support. The fact that he didn’t and that he actually seems to have taken an interest in these people’s cases and sees their getting out of jail as a good thing is pretty strong evidence he is not a bad person whatever you think of his politics.

    1. This story will be buried by morning.

    2. Trump isn’t a bad person. He’s just… special.

      I’ve known men like him. Family money. Completely out of touch. Not his fault, really. An insatiable ego, again, probably a genetic disorder.

      None of this has any effect positive or negative on his intelligence. He happens to be a moron. Once again, born that way.

      Props to anyone who effects criminal justice reform. Things don’t happen by magic or with only one party. Both parties have realized the Kafkaesque horror of our system. It’s long overdue. Perhaps a more conventional Republican president wouldn’t go for it. No reason not to give him credit for supporting something good.

      1. Tony you are without question the most ignorant person I have ever encountered. So you commenting on anyone’s intelligence is rich to say the least.

        Moreover, if you were not also a total racist who is incapable of judging black people as human beings, you would be so embarrassed by President Chancy Gardner former community organizer’s intelligence you would never bring the subject up again. Barrack Obama did nothing beyond use his race to get into elite schools. He never practiced law, He never wrote a single scholarly article or did anything except be an adjunct for a couple of years. He had no understanding of the country or really much of anything except for having the incredible skill at manipulating stupid white people. He was good at that.

        Trump has a lot more money than his father ever gave him and is turning out to be a very successful President. In the end, if he is a moron, that only makes you and your disgusting ilk look worse. Remember, no matter how horrible you think Trump is, the country rightly concluded the Democrats were worse.

      2. And although you are ignorant, you make up for it by being the most disgusting hateful human being on earth. Your entire purpose in life seems to be to hate some designated other. That is likely the result of your own self loathing but your low intelligence makes it possible you are not even that sophisticated.

        1. Don’t hold back, John. Tell us how you really feel. Lol

    3. No Reason writer has ever said Trump is absolutely bad. There have been numerous ones applauding specific policies and actions.

      You and the other TDS wokers are just the opposite: you come to Trump’s defense for the dumbest things he does, saying he’s playing 37-D chest (oops, sorry, that just slipped out), making every feeble excuse you can think of.

      Go on, try right now — give one example of a Trump policy or action of which you do not approve. Show just one thing he’s done wrong.

      I double dog dare you.

      1. He didn’t lock her up?

      2. Reason claims Trump is an evil person bent on starting a war and totally unfit for office. Go read anything Suderman wrote before the election.

        You tell me what I should disprove of him doing? What is he doing that is so bad that I should disprove of? He should try to cut spending more but that is Congress not him. He has underestimated the importance of filling the political appointments and I don’t think appreciates the importance of bringing the bureacracy to heel. And that may come back to bite him.

        Beyond that it is not my job to criticize Trump. If you think he sucks, tell me why and convince me. If you make a good point, I will agree with you. Otherwise go fuck yourself and pose somewhere else and in front of someone who cares.

        1. Beyond that it is not my job to criticize Trump.

          Well that much is true. You wouldn’t be a very good Trump shill if you actually criticized the man.

      3. Policy wise trump.hasnt done much negative. Hes actually been stymied by the courts in a lot of areas he has attempted to work, courts stating DACA is now law for example.

        We already know your open borders idiocy, but rational people realize welfare states and open borders dont mix. One day you may pick up an economical book and realize that, but it doesnt male it bad policy. Some will point to tariffs but then push a narrative that other countries dont have a say in the tariffs they impose.

        The worst thing trump does is ruin his messaging with idiotic tweets. He cant stay on message. Likewise he is bad at consistency in staff which causes major disruptions in implementing policy

        The absolutely worst thing he has done is not taken the 30 day furlough law and use it to reduce unneeded federal workers. Second worse is not declassifying memos to hide government abuses, especially ones that are not classified but merely done to hide incompetence. Trump is probably too lazy to go read the documents and push the issue.

      4. Go on, try right now — give one example of a Trump policy or action of which you do not approve. Show just one thing he’s done wrong.

        Why would they? They are Republicans, after all.

      5. Go on, try right now — give one example of a Trump policy or action of which you do not approve. Show just one thing he’s done wrong.

        Ironically you could ask the opposite question to the other side, and they will be unable to give you a policy or action which they do approve

        I find it absolutely hilarious that prior to 2016 support fro NAFTA was lower among Democrats than Republicans, and while opposition to NAFTA has risen 9 points among Republicans because of Trump, support for it among Democrats has nearly doubled, up a whopping 30 points, for no other reason than because Trump opposes it

        You’ll find blind partisanship on both sides, but there is a clear winner here

        1. Principals before principles.

      6. give one example of a Trump policy or action of which you do not approve
        Trump promised he would bring back Jobs, but he’s still dead and Tim Cook is still screwing up everything.

    4. John, aren’t you the one who is always telling us that we should judge Trump by the standards of a typical politician? So why shouldn’t we judge Trump’s actions with regards to criminal justice reform similarly? Perhaps he is just cynically pandering for votes.

      1. The evidence that suggests he isn’t is because it isn’t going to get him many votes and certainly not as many as playing the law and order card. You of course think he is being cynical and hates these people or sees them as tools. You think that because you hate Trump and a large part of your self esteem and sense of social standing comes from the conviction that he is a bad man and you are fighting a noble fight against the forces of intolerance.

        And who knows. I can’t read Trump’s mind. Maybe the morality play going on in your head fits with reality. But, the evidence says it might not. If Trump were cynical and wanted to score easy points, he would have had widows of people who were murdered by illegal aliens not felons he has helped get out of prison.

        1. Jeff comes from the viewpoint that trump is a grand wizard who would kill all blacks if he could, so of course this is pandering. Of course Jeff cant find any actual racist quotes from trump but he feels it is true.

          1. Oh fuck off Jesse. You really are tiresome. You wouldn’t know my actual viewpoint if you tried. All you have are caricatures in your head about what you think I am. You are the one operating from feelz, not me.

            1. Your are the most conformist and most obvious virtue signaler on here Jeff. Stop projecting

              1. John, everyone you disagree with is the most or the worst something or other.

                No wonder you like Trump so much. He had your rhetorical style down perfectly.

            2. People like John and Tony are why President Trump’s call for Americans to come together as one nation, instead of opposing parties or camps, is unlikely to be realized. They may be overrepresented here, but not by all that much.

              I don’t like Trump as a person, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. His support for criminal justice reform, and for getting us away from fighting endless wars, are both positive developments. The FIRST STEP act probably would not have passed under a President H. Clinton. I wish Ms. Johnson and Mr. Charles well.

            3. I only had to read a few of your comments to see that you were an asshole. It’s pretty obvious.

        2. The evidence that suggests he isn’t is because it isn’t going to get him many votes

          Why wouldn’t it? The Team Red partisans are going to vote for him no matter what. He already has your vote in his back pocket regardless of what he says or does from here on out. The votes he’s pandering for are the ones for which the law-and-order platform doesn’t go over as well.

          You of course think he is being cynical and hates these people or sees them as tools.

          I don’t know about ‘hate’. But sees them as tools? Well, why not? Isn’t that how pandering politicians treat their subjects all the time? Why should Trump get special dispensation?

          You think that because you hate Trump…

          Blah blah blah. This isn’t about me, this is about your apparent double standard for Trump. When Trump does something evidently bad, well, he’s just a politician and that’s what all politicians do. But when Trump does something evidently good, well, that is proof of Trump’s inherent goodness and not just Trump acting like a politician and pandering for votes.

          I personally think Trump is neither inherently good nor inherently evil on this issue, but instead simply weak-minded and was talked into it by his liberal family members and various emotional appeals on the subject. But I don’t put it past him to be just pandering for votes either. It’s telling that you decide to change the standard whenever it’s Trump doing something good.

          1. There is no double standard here. I gave Obama credit when he reduced crack sentences and never questioned his motives. You question Trump’s motives here and dream up a story that he weak minded and being manipulated by his family because you cannot bear the idea that you might be wrong about him. Hating Trump and assuming the worst is how you signal your social status and feel good about yourself.

            My advice is get a hobby and find some reason to respect yourself that doesn’t involve politics. You will be a lot happier and smarter for it.

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