Professor Shon Hopwood: On Clemency and Second Chances

June 8, 2018

Professor Shon Hopwood is representing Matthew Charles, who was released from federal prison in 2016 and returned to prison this spring, in a clemency petition.

The story of Professor Shon Hopwood’s astounding life journey from federal prisoner to Georgetown Law professor has been told many times. Today, Hopwood — who joined the Georgetown Law faculty last year — works for criminal justice reform and prison reform so that others may have a second chance, too. He’s in the news recently because of his decision to represent Matthew Charles in a clemency petition.

Sentenced in 1996 to 35 years for selling cocaine, Matthew Charles served 21 years and was released in 2016. Though he rehabilitated himself and found a job, Charles was sent back to prison this spring after a judge determined that the release was improper. We talked to Hopwood about the Charles case; the injustice of the parole system; the recent decision of President Donald Trump to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who served 21 years for a nonviolent drug offense; and redemption — a subject that Hopwood knows something about. The Q&A follows.

You are getting a lot of media attention because of Matthew Charles. What happened and why did you decide to represent him in a clemency petition?

Matthew received a 35-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense when he was in his 20s. He served 21 years in federal prison. A judge thought that a new guideline amendment applied to him, and resentenced him to time served. He was released for two years, but the government appealed the judge’s new sentence and won. The judge asked the U.S. attorney’s office, will you dismiss the charge, just let him walk? The U.S. attorney refused, and Matthew gets resentenced to the 35 years. Two weeks ago he’s returned back into custody…

I had heard about the case months ago, and then learned about the facts — I mean, 21 years in federal prison, [and] Matthew has not received one disciplinary report. In the two years he was out — the first two years of reentry are the most difficult, and the most precarious for people committing new crimes — Matthew gets a job, gets a house, starts a serious relationship and gets a community at his church. He volunteers every Saturday at a soup kitchen for the homeless, even though he’s trying to get his own life back on track. I talked to people from Nashville, and one, they’re really upset, and two, they’re furious that he’s going to have to do 10 more years in federal prison. I got called last week [by Families Against Mandatory Minimums] to talk about, who could we get to represent him? It didn’t take long to realize that I was probably the right person for this. It is hard for me to say no when an injustice like this is staring me in the face. I want others to experience the second chances that I’ve been given.


He was sentenced in 1996 to 35 years for selling crack and served 20 years. How unjust was this sentence to begin with?

The sentence is grossly unjust. The federal system, you have to serve at a minimum of 85 percent, so he was going to have to serve 30 or 31 years for a nonviolent drug offense. The social science data tells us that young men in their 20s make all sorts of horrific decisions, and then they age out of crime. And it’s pretty remarkable that in 23 years — 21 in prison and two on the outside — not only is there no record of violence or another crime, but he never received a single disciplinary infraction in federal prison. I’ve never seen that happen. To put it in context, I’m often held up as the poster child for rehabilitation. I got two disciplinary reports in eleven years, which is about half of what Matthew served. You see the reports from the counselor at the prison, and they all say this man is completely reformed. So it makes little sense to lock him back up for another 10 years.


What can we do to alleviate these kinds of injustices?

Immediately, we’re trying to raise awareness. This case has kind of caught wildfire. It’s the first case I’ve seen like this, that everyone on the political spectrum — including many prominent conservative politicians and lawyers and advocates — are also imploring the president to grant clemency… And I should be clear — we’re not seeking a pardon. What we are seeking is clemency and a commutation of the sentence to time served. He would still have the conviction on his record, [but] his sentence would be reduced to time served and he would be released back to Nashville.


How often is someone sent back to prison like this?

It doesn’t happen very often…here, what was unusual is that the trial judge released him pending the appeal and he actually got out. [But] there are thousands of Matthew Charleses serving really long sentences who have completely reformed themselves; they just never get the opportunity to get out and show it.


The New York Times outlined some of the problems of the pardon system. Thoughts on that?

The Office of the Pardon Attorney is in the Department of Justice. The same group of people who prosecute people are then weighing in on clemency decisions. The whole idea of clemency is that someone may have committed a crime or received a sentence many years ago and has changed. The federal prosecutors who prosecute those crimes don’t see the change. They only remember the man or woman when they’re charged and convicted. So it seems like an ill fit.

We haven’t even filed an official clemency petition for Matthew Charles yet…


On Wednesday, President Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson. Thoughts on that case?

I was greatly encouraged that the president commuted her sentence. She was serving a life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent drug offense — a 63-year-old grandmother. She is another person who has proved that she is worthy of a second chance by her conduct in prison. She would have died in prison.


What does it mean to a lawyer when a celebrity steps in, to advocate for a prisoner?

If Kim Kardashian goes to the White House tomorrow and Matthew Charles ends up getting released, I will celebrate and jump up and down…it doesn’t bother me in the least. I just told NBC today that we need more celebrities talking about these injustices. If we had that, we’d have more people getting out and we’d have more change.


Can you talk about your work with the White House?

I’ve been working with them on the federal prison reform bill (First Step Act) that overwhelmingly passed the House just a few weeks ago and is in the Senate. I worked with mostly Jared Kushner’s office, but I was there for the big prison reform summit that the president had about a month ago.


Why does this client resonate with you?

I know how much punishment ten more years of prison will be…Matthew Charles will not come out of it better. I just had a heart to try and help him because I feel for his family and what they’re going through and how far away he will be incarcerated from them, and how hard it is for them to have visits with him. All those little things that go into when someone is incarcerated for a decade or more.

People have no concept of a year in prison, how much punishment that is…our sentences are so long, and have been so long for such a long time, that people forget [what life] in an American prison is. If I thought these long sentences actually made us safer, I would probably be screaming about the injustice, but we know the current system probably makes us less safe.

Matthew Charles and his girlfriend Naomi have already said, if we make this happen, we are going to be the new criminal justice reform advocacy couple. So it will be a good thing for them, but it will also show people currently in federal prison that if you do the right things, you could be the next Matthew Charles.

You could be the next Shon Hopwood… [see “Shon Hopwood: A Different Kind of Public Interest Lawyer”]

That, too. Most of the people inside prison have the potential for rehabilitation. The difference with me was that I was afforded many second chances that others were not. I can’t tell you how crazy my life has been. I had a day a few weeks ago where I went to the White House for a meeting on how to fix the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a couple hours later I was at the federal District Court teaching about reentry to 150 federal judges for the Federal Judicial Center. I just thought, I am living someone else’s life. I love my job; I get to teach students and help people all the time.