Matthew Charles

Julieta Martinelli / WPLN

Earlier last month, Matthew Charles became the first inmate released under provisions of the First Step Act – a bipartisan bill championed by President Trump and reformers across the political spectrum that took modest steps to reform the criminal justice system and ease punitive prison sentences at the federal level. Mr. Charles’s story is compelling, and you can read all about it here.

However, Mr. Charles’s story of being the first inmate released by the First Step Act and ultimately becoming one of the faces of the criminal justice reform movement begins with the power of digital activism and coalition building efforts.

On the afternoon of May 25, 2018, I discovered an article by WPLN’s Julieta Martinelli, highlighting Mr. Charles’s imminent return to federal prison. The injustice shocked me, as well as many others who read the story. As I sat in my chair and reflected, I knew I needed to leverage the skills and principles taught at GLA and see if we could make a difference in Mr. Charles’s life.

Leveraging my professional community, I reached out to Mark Holden, Chairman of Freedom Partners. Mr. Holden was involved in criminal justice reform discussions at the White House since the beginning.

Within minutes, Mark replied to my email – indicating he forwarded the story to members of the White House criminal justice reform group and encouraged me to raise awareness about Mr. Charles. I took to Twitter and Facebook, sharing the story among friends and colleagues passionate about criminal justice reform.

As I shared Matthew’s story with my activist network, others began spreading the word about the injustice of Mr. Charles. Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), launched an online petition. Jason Pye, Vice President for Legislative Affairs for FreedomWorks, published an op-ed and helped raise awareness. Shon Hopwood, an attorney and Georgetown Law Professor, filed clemency paperwork with the White House. Weldon Angelos, formerly incarcerated and now a champion for criminal justice reform, tapped his network. Kevin Sharp, the former federal judge who released Mr. Charles in 2016, went on Fox News to talk about the issue. Likewise, dozens of other activists and leaders shared Mr. Charles’s story across social media.

Reporters and bloggers, who often find story ideas on social media, wrote about Matthew Charles. These stories were published from a wide range of outlets across political ideologies, including libertarian outlet Reason Magazine, music and entertainment magazine VIBE as well as The Washington Post, National Review, Christian Broadcasting Network, and MSNBC.

Matthew Hurtt (Center) poses with Matthew Charles and Naomi Tharpe at a FAMM Foundation event on January 28, 2019.

Using the hashtag #FreeMatthewCharles, thousands of people shared these articles and blog posts written over the two-week period following WPLN’s May 2018 article – all while Mr. Charles returned to prison, unsure of when he would regain his freedom.

As Matthew Charles’s story spread across social, print, online, and broadcast media, policymakers in Washington turned their attention to criminal justice reform. President Trump hosted reformers at the White House and granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson – signaling his support for granting clemency to others caught in the criminal justice system. At the same time, U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act.

Awareness rose as the First Step Act headed to the Senate. Unfortunately, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated the legislation likely wouldn’t receive a vote before the end of 2018. Organizations like Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Prison Fellowship, Heritage Action, and #cut50 (among many, many others) organized their memberships, activists, and supporters to put pressure on the U.S. Senate to act.

Conservative Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul and liberal Senators Dick Durbin and Cory Booker called for a vote, indicating the bill would garner at least 70 “aye” votes on the Senate Floor. In the waning days of 2018, the Senate passed the First Step Act, 87-12. President Trump swiftly signed the bill, earning praise from pundits and policymakers across the political spectrum.

And as Americans recovered from ringing in the New Year, Matthew Charles learned that his attorneys used provisions of the First Step Act to petition for his release. Good news came to Mr. Charles on January 3rd when a federal judge ruled that he was eligible for immediate release.

There are dozens of leaders and many thousands of everyday Americans, like myself, who shared Matthew Charles’s story and made the passage of the First Step Act a reality. And while it originally seemed like an uphill climb to help Mr. Charles and thousands others who now benefit from the First Step Act, it ultimately took raising awareness on social media and building a bipartisan coalition to make a positive change.

As you confront issues in your community, consider how you can use social media to raise awareness for public policies by sharing stories that humanize the issue and identifying what organizations and allies you can work with to achieve a public policy win.

To learn more about how you can effectively leverage these skills to affect change in your community, sign up for a GLA certification program near you.