Joel Francisco was 14 years into a life sentence for selling crack cocaine when he got his second chance.
A landmark piece of criminal justice reform legislation, passed with the support of President Donald Trump and rare bipartisan backing, had made Francisco newly eligible for an older law that reduced the sentences for convicted crack dealers.
Behind bars, the former gang leader had made “significant efforts toward post-conviction rehabilitation” and had separated himself from the “proverbial ‘herd'” while “committing himself to a law-abiding life,” he wrote in an application for his release.
In February, with the approval of federal prosecutors and a district court judge, Francisco became one of the first federal prisoners to walk free as a result of the First Step Act.
Last month, he was handcuffed again, accused this time of stabbing to death 46-year-old Troy Pine at a Providence, Rhode Island, hookah lounge.
More than 4,700 inmates have been released from prison under the law since its signing late last year, according to the Department of Justice, and federal officials believe Francisco is the first among them to be accused of murder.
While an outlier, his case is raising questions and resurfacing concerns from detractors of the legislation.
“This case is upsetting but it’s not a surprise,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who was one of the bill’s biggest critics on Capitol Hill. “Letting violent felons out of prison early as the First Step Act did leads to more crime and more victims.”
Other lawmakers who supported the bill called the incident a tragedy, but hoped that it wouldn’t stand in the way of more progress.
“If you’re looking at reforming the criminal justice system you cannot pick an individual criminal act to then raise the question as to whether or not you do reforms to the system,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
For police in Providence, Francisco was a known quantity. Nicknamed the “crown prince” of the Latin Kings gang by prosecutors — and “Joey Crack” on the street, according to the Rhode Island US attorney’s office — Francisco had a reputation for violence.
At age 19 he was convicted of assault with intent to murder. And by 2004, he’d become the top target in a multi-agency drug trafficking investigation codenamed Operation Royal Flush.
Francisco was arrested that year alongside several other accused dealers and charged with possession with intent to sell cocaine and crack cocaine.
He was convicted at trial and received a mandatory life sentence on the crack cocaine count as a result of two prior felony drug convictions.
His release this year raised eyebrows among police leaders who knew him.
“I hope that he’s been rehabilitated. However, I have serious doubts, having known him the way I did all those years,” Providence police Commander Thomas Verdi told the Providence Journal at the time. “He had a propensity for violence.”
Francisco soon moved into a small brick apartment connected to the Providence church where his father was a pastor. In a brief interview last month, Samuel Francisco told CNN that he’d been trying to get his son’s life on track.
Francisco is not yet represented by an attorney on the murder charge.
Francisco’s release came under a provision of the First Step Act aimed to make up for a disparity in federal sentencing that had seen convicted dealers of crack cocaine face far greater prison time than sellers of the powdered form of the drug.
The sentencing gap, which had an outsized impact along racial lines, was narrowed by legislation in 2010, but it wasn’t until the 2018 law that people who had been imprisoned before 2010, like Francisco, became eligible for the reform.
As of last month, 1,540 men and women have been released just as a result of the drug resentencing provision, according to the Department of Justice. Thousands more have been released early under a different part of the First Step Act that recalculated how prisoners earn early release credit for good time served, and the Justice Department is in the final stages of releasing a tool that will help match inmates with recidivism reduction programs.
By the time he applied for early release, Francisco had studied resume writing and job interview skills. He’d logged 360 hours of culinary arts classes and earned certificates for coursework in conflict management and drug abuse.
But by July, Joel Francisco was back in police custody, accused of trying to break into his ex-girlfriend’s house. To defenders of the legislation, the incident was a missed red flag.
According to a police report, Francisco’s ex-girlfriend called authorities in the early morning hours after hearing someone tampering with her bedroom window and trying to cut through the screen.
When patrol officers arrived, they say they found Francisco standing on the front porch of the house. An “unknown object” he tossed into the bushes was determined later to be a black folding knife, police wrote in a narrative.
There were conflicting stories about Francisco and his ex’s interactions leading up to the incident, however, and after the arrest, the ex-girlfriend submitted paperwork to withdraw her complaint, state prosecutors said.
Still, prosecutors saw enough evidence of a crime and moved forward with charges. Francisco entered an initial not guilty plea, and had planned to fight the case, his lawyer told the Providence Journal. The lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN.
In an interview, Francisco’s ex-girlfriend, who did not want to be named, said Francisco may have struggled to transition back into a world outside prison.
“A person that does a long sentence as him should not just be released, and should be released with some type of mental help and to get them established, because the only thing I can think of is this person is still in his jail-zone in his mind,” she said.
Although Francisco was under supervised release as part of the terms of his reduced sentence, word of the July arrest, on state charges, did not make it to federal prosecutors in Rhode Island, according to a Justice Department official.
Francisco’s probation officer elected not to inform the local US attorney’s office, who could have then moved to revoke his release, instead opting to provide counseling to Francisco, according to the head of Rhode Island’s district court, which oversees the local US probation office.
After a review, the court determined the probation officer’s move was “appropriate and consistent with current district practices,” Chief Judge William E. Smith said in a statement.
Investigators are now attempting to determine why, as police allege, Francisco grew violent late on the night of October 2.
It’s the same question that the family of Troy Pine is asking as well.
“I don’t want to wish that man any ill will. I don’t want any harm to come to him. I just want answers,” Pine’s nephew, Jay Chattelle, said in an interview.
Chattelle, just months younger than the uncle he called a hardworking and lovable “ladies man,” expressed concern over Francisco’s early release. But said he still supported the reforms put in place by the First Step Act, and advocated for more work to be done to prepare prisoners for re-entry into society.
“It’s a flawed system. It’s a beautiful program to get people to come home that don’t need to be dying in jail, don’t need to be living their life in jail, but there have got to be more steps. Some people have to be held accountable,” Chattelle said.
Chattelle’s message of forgiveness and progress, in a case with no parallel, have resonated beyond Providence.
At an oversight hearing on the First Step Act before the House Judiciary Committee last month, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a top Democrat in Congress, read aloud a letter that Chattelle had written about his uncle’s death.
“Anyone who speaks my uncle’s name,” Jeffries read from Chattelle’s letter, “please speak it in a way that will draw people together and bring help to people in these communities, including human beings who have been locked up for too long. Speak it in a way that brings healing to people who need it.”