Matthew Charles had served more than two decades in prison for dealing crack cocaine when a judge ordered his release in 2016, believing that a change in federal sentencing guidelines applied to him retroactively. Charles had been a free man for two years, leading a law-abiding and productive life, when he was ordered back to prison to serve yet another decade because federal prosecutors successfully appealed the judge’s decision. The blatant injustice of the situation prompted advocates on the left and the right to urge President Donald Trump to grant him clemency. Thankfully for Charles, he did not ultimately need Trump’s intervention, because the recently passed First Step Act allowed for retroactive adjustments to crack sentences, and he was again released—this time for good. But most of the First Step Act’s provisions fix the law only going forward, leaving behind thousands to serve disproportionate sentences that courts no longer give. For them, clemency from the president remains the only source of relief available.
It took six years of intense wrangling to get the First Step Act passed. Clemency reform, however, requires the action of only one man. The president can act alone to fix what Congress did not.
Even the First Step Act’s primary nemesis, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, has acknowledged a role for clemency, saying as part of his attack on the legislation, “I grant that, in a particular case, the interaction of specific facts and the law can create an unjust sentence. If that happens, the best course of action is the scalpel of the governor or the president’s pardon and clemency power, not the ax of criminal leniency legislation.”