Integrity and Mandatory Minimums

Judges are generally prohibited by ethics rules from commenting publicly on cases that they preside over. In Nashville, Tn., we just had a rare glimpse into federal judge Kevin Sharp’s struggle on the bench with the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences and how prosecutors use them. Although federal judges are appointed for life, Sharp left the bench after six years citing the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences. Specifically, he recalls the case of Christopher Young, a defendant in his early 20s whom Sharp was forced to sentence to life in prison for a drug crime.

“Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual,” Sharp said at the sentencing hearing in 2014. “I don’t think that’s happening here.”

But there are duties that come with a black robe and gavel, chief among them following the laws of the United States no matter your personal opinion. And as a federal judge, Sharp had to impose mandatory minimum terms. That meant Young, a repeat drug offender, would never go home to Clarksville.

Young was caught in a federal drug conspiracy when agents alleged that he had bought crack cocaine from the alleged leader of a drug ring. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and powder cocaine, among other counts. When a person is charged in a federal conspiracy, they are held accountable for the drug weights of all members of the conspiracy whether they knew the individuals or not. They are also held accountable for all drug weights attributed to them by other cooperating codefendants. Although Young was in his early 20s, he also had two prior drug convictions that triggered a mandatory life sentence if found guilty.

At the hearing, Young described his upbringing: His mother was a drug addict, he said, and at times their house had no lights nor water. When he was old enough to get a job, he worked at a funeral home, but he felt a growing divide between himself and others in his neighborhood who dealt drugs, pulling him that way.

There is no justice in imposing mandatory minimums for drug crimes particularly in the majority of cases where the defendant was born into a culture with little or no opportunity to find a different way through life. It’s a sanitized and legalized form of Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines – Young’s life is gone just as surely as if a vigilante had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It brings to mind a trial where the defendant held up a sign to the jurors that read, “This is a high-tech lynching.”

I want to agree with John Floyd’s praise for Judge Sharp for leaving the bench over humanitarian concerns as opposed to most who leave for higher paying jobs. I’m also skeptical. Because, well, he left the bench and took a higher paying job? And now his replacement will be appointed by Trump? Could he have done more good by staying in his position, speaking out from his position, and working to change the system from a position where he might actually be able to change the system?

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