In 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.