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This ‘Three Strikes’ Law Sends People to Die in Federal Prison For Drug Crimes

Roughly 800 federal inmates are sentenced to life under an obscure sentencing enhancement that lawmakers in Congress might soon vote to reduce.

Ingram Publishing/NewscomIngram Publishing/NewscomIn 2014, 26-year-old Tennessee resident Chris Young was sentenced to life in federal prison for a drug offense. The judge in his case had no choice but to sentence him to die behind bars under an obscure "three strikes" law for prior drug crimes after prosecutors filed what's known as an 851 notice.

The filing, known for the section of the U.S. Code from which it's derived, was originally intended to give prosecutors leeway to avoid some of the harshest mandatory minimums on the books. But as the drug war expanded, the threat of an 851 filing became a prosecutorial bullying tactic used to dissuade defendants from exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial. It also ties the hands of judges, taking away any discretion they have over sentencing, and has sent hundreds of drug offenders to prison for life. Congress may take up reforms soon—but only if "tough-on-crime" conservative senators and President Trump's new acting attorney general don't scuttle the legislation.

'The sentence that everybody knows is coming is certainly more harsh than is necessary.'

Young has since become the poster child for criminal justice reforms that would limit the length of those sentencing enhancements. And one of his strongest supporters is Kevin Sharp—the judge who was forced to sentence him to death behind bars. Sharp dealt with a lot of drugs and guns cases as a U.S. district judge in Tennessee, and Chris Young's case was in many ways not unusual.

Young was a peripheral figure in the bust of large drug ring. Yet even though he was facing serious charges for cocaine trafficking, he rejected the plea deal that federal prosecutors dangled in front of him.

Prosecutors responded by filing an 851 notice against him, using two prior low-level crack cocaine offenses that he'd caught when he was 18 and 19 years old. The combined weight of the drugs in Young's previous convictions amounted to about 7.5 grams, or roughly the weight of three pennies.

In 2013, a jury found Young guilty of drug conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine, attempted possession with intent to sell within 1,000 feet of a school, and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug crime. Because Young had at least two prior drug convictions, Sharp was bound by the law to sentence the 26-year-old to life in federal prison.

For Sharp, Young's 2014 sentencing hearing was little more than judicial theater. "The sentence that everybody knows is coming is certainly more harsh than is necessary, and I wish it was not that way," he said at the hearing.

It was then Young's chance to address the court. He launched into a long speech about what he'd been reading and learning over the past four years he'd spend in county jail while his case dragged on. He referenced Greek philosophers and figures from early American history, such as the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. He talked about monetary policy, the leadership of the Federal Reserve, Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and his heroes in the world of business and finance.

Young also talked about where he came from, how he grew up with a drug-addicted mother in a house where the electricity and water was often turned off. How, as a kid, he reeked of the kerosene used to light his house and took showers at neighbors' places when he could swallow his pride. How, when Young was 18, his older brother committed suicide, and he found the body.

Sharp recalls listening to this speech from behind the bench. "I'm just listening to this thinking, 'Oh my God, what are we doing?'"

Sharp wasn't a bleeding heart. He believed Young deserved hard time—seven to nine years, if the judge had his way. Young had also accumulated a long rap sheet during his teenage and young adult years. But to Sharp, the thought of condemning him to die in prison seemed insane.

At one point, Sharp stopped to talk about books with Young, and recommended some novels by British author C.P. Snow. He was trying to draw out the hearing.

"Just so I didn't have to say ..." and here the former judge's voice still catches on the word four years later: "Life."

The 'shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing'

An estimated 800 federal inmates are, like Young, currently sentenced to die in prison under 851 enhancements, according to The Buried Alive Project, an advocacy group that works to raise awareness of life sentences for drug offenses.

Section 851 of the U.S. Code is applied in only a small chunk of annual federal drug cases, but "the shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing," as one U.S. district judge called it, is an incredibly powerful tool that prosecutors use to coerce defendants into plea deals and hammer those who reject them.

Federal judges, criminal justice advocates, and former prosecutors say they are used arbitrarily. Studies by the U.S. Sentencing Commission have found 851 notices are filed more, and withdrawn less often, against minority defendants. In some federal districts, the notices are almost never filed at all, while in others prosecutors use them in almost every drug case they can.

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  • Michael Cook||

    I have a 28-yr-old nephew, once a football standout, now dying of Hep B and drug-related heart failure, who was not invited to any Thanksgiving dinners because everyone in the family has a no-contact order against him and his parole officer won't let him leave the state where he lives anyhow.

    So, frankly, I don't care about the problems of three strikes drug offenders, nor about caravans of migrants trying to enter the USA illegally, many of whom are likely going to be contributors to the drug trade. Not all of them, of course, but many, and the business side does run in families using children as cover for entry, decoys, mules, or whatever.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    A. You are denying your nephew agency by blaming his mistakes on others.

    B. You are denying any government complicity in preventing drug dealers from using public product testing to produce safe products.

    C. You are using a sob story to try to enlist others in using government to reduce individual liberty.

  • Michael Cook||

    During the communist takeover of China in 1947 Mao and crew put a dead stop to severe heroin abuse in China by shooting any and all associated with use, trafficking, growth, processing, or promoting opium of any of its derivatives. Today the government of the Philippines takes a page from that program.

    You sneer at my family's "sob story" under the cover of anonymity, of course. Keep in mind, we are legion. In so many communities in America on every block they remember someone they have lost tragically to the drug epidemic while smug "libertarians" prattle about it being the moral weakness of individuals that is to blame.

    I worked in law enforcement. The drug business is about grooming, recruitment and marketing. It is also about covertly supporting liberal politicians to hamstring anti-drug laws and gut drug dealing penalties.

  • Juice||

    I worked in law enforcement.

    Yup.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Are you seriously proposing that a police state established by a communist dictatorship is the appropriate model for the US to follow in the war on drugs?

    "I worked in law enforcement."

    I for one am glad that you no longer work in law enforcement.

  • Utilitarian||

    I agree. The only way to actually win the drug war is to turn the US into an authoritarian dystopia. That's why I oppose the drug war. I don't want the US to follow in the footsteps of Mao, Duterte, or any other strong man.

  • DajjaI||

    The solution to problem kids isn't to lock them up for life. That is actually modern day child sacrifice. (I suspect he was a victim of drug addiction propaganda.)

  • IceTrey||

    And when they come for you no one will be around to defend you.

  • Ben_||

    Reading Reason has become a lot harder recently. On immigration and some other topics, Reason does what the rest of the media does: hide half the story.

    So when reading this, I suspected Reason was up to the same tricks and I would find out this guy committed a bunch of other violent crimes that Reason wasn't telling us about.

    Not this time though. This article actually seems straightforward. Too bad readers need to assume we're being manipulated every time we read an article these days.

  • IceTrey||

    He wasn't sentenced for a violent crime.

  • hiccup1dt||

    Some may call it violent. How many kids would of got that coke? How many parents have lost their children to drug abuse?, how many children have died of drug abuse?

  • Robert||

    Straightforward but not sufficiently explanatory. I don't understand how § 851 made things worse. What was there before § 851, or what was the unamended wording of § 851? I don't see how a mechanism providing an option to reduce a sentence led to increases in sentences.

  • CGN||

    As per the usual, government fucks everything up. Why in a "FREE" country like U.S. should people not be able to ingest what they damn well please? Drunks behind the wheel of a car cause HUGELY more deaths and injury than cocaine users ever will, and yet no one talks about eliminating or criminalizing the use of alcohol, probably because Prohibition was the cause for illegal gangs providing the same, just as is the case with "drugs": it doesn't work. The feds and all other governmental entities should just get used to the fact that people use drugs, mostly without any negative outcomes, and that it is NONE of their damn business if they do. My preferred "drug" is beer, and woe betide the politician who wants to criminalize the use of the same, as they will be out of office as fast as you can say "Fuck off, get out of my personal life!"

  • Robert||

    For dignity, like dwarves.

  • hiccup1dt||

    Well probably because most heavy drug users are thieves and prey on others to pay for their habit.As for comparing violence just look at all the violence in Mexico over the Cocaine trade. Selling drugs to dumb Americans is a very lucrative business the more hooked on opiates and methamphetamine's is a good thing for the people poisoning this country. Legalizing will just create a bigger market for them. By the way here in Oregon in Septembe r Springfield had 27 dead in one week from over dosing on heroin laced with fentanyl. Springfields population is 62,353.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    It's what government does. Anyone who thinks government is competent or even well-intentioned needs to face the reality that government is bureaucrats whose only goal is to stay in power, and if that means destroying the kulaks and wreckers and hoarders and individualists, so be it.

  • Duelles||

    Tyrannanical justice! What could more fair!

  • Dillinger||

    reforms like commuting those sentences?

  • IceTrey||

    What kind of evil do these prosecutors have to be to do this kind of thing?

  • Juice||

    The kind that believes they are on a righteous mission (perhaps ordained by GOD) and anyone who opposes their mission isn't just wrong but evil (perhaps sent by SATAN).

  • DouglasA||

    Lesson I got was slaps on the wrist for minor drug violations didn't deter them to move on to bigger involvement in drugs. Maybe they should have gotten 5 years for the second strike. Of course then the article would have been about harsh sentences for minor drug infractions.

  • IceTrey||

    Maybe drugs should be legal.

  • Juice||

    That is simplistic thinking. The correct answer is executing all drug pushers and users.

  • Utilitarian||

    I'm on board if we start with the drugs nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.

  • markm23||

    How about starting with the worst drug of all: power. Execute anyone that has been in a legislative or policy making position in government for over 15 years.

  • Gene Ralno||

    I remember when that law was enacted and most of us cheered. I remember when a 14-year old son of our best friends first succumbed to a dealer's peer pressure tactic. Everyone knew who this dealer was and where he lived. It was a palatial home near where our friends lived at the time. Law enforcement had tried several times to nail him but he always slicked his way into a mistrial or acquittal. We had a couple of drinks one night and almost loaded up our hardware to shoot the beans out of this dealer. But of course, we didn't.

    Their son suffered with addiction to various stuff for ten years. He went in and out of jails and halfway houses. He was alone for his last five years. He loved to fish regardless of whether it was from a dock or nailing King Mackerel miles from shore. After his last drug trip, he crashed his car and we buried him. His father and I decided America needed something tougher than the three-strikes law but only for dealers. We realized America has been punishing the user when it's the dealers and producers who should be put down. Although everyone hates deals and considers them shyster sh*t, we decided they should be aggressively used to identify dealers.

  • Utilitarian||

    It would be great if aggressively going after dealers made drugs less available or at least safer, but the opposite is true. It has no effect on the availability of drugs and has a negative effect on drug quality.

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