He sentenced a man to life in prison. Now he’s working to get him out.

By | March 7, 2020


Kim Kardashian West paid a visit to the White House this week to lobby for criminal justice reform. The reality television star was accompanied by three formerly incarcerated women to highlight the power of clemency, one of the only reform initiatives a president can undertake without congressional approval.

Kardashian West has successfully lobbied for the commutations of people like Alice Marie Johnson and Cyntoia Brown-Long. She’s now advocating for the early release of Christopher Young, a 31-year-old convicted of non-violent drug charges in a conspiracy case. Young was sentenced to life in prison under a federal “three strikes law,” which imposes a mandatory minimum on repeat offenders.

Kardashian West has teamed up with Kevin Sharp, the former federal judge who sentenced Young in 2013. The two have appeared together at the White House before to advocate for Young’s commutation. Sharp says Young never should’ve been sentenced to life in prison, but “his hands were tied” during the trial.

When did you first hear about Kim Kardashian West’s interest in Chris Young’s case?

The biggest surprise was when I got a telephone call that said, “Hey are you around in about five minutes because Kim would like to talk about Chris.” It would be really easy to just take some shots for publicity, but it’s not like that. She’s really involved. She’s there, on the phone with him.

It’s not always easy to set up prison calls, but the first time I heard Chris’ voice since the sentencing, [Kardashian West] was on the phone. I felt bad because Chris and I were dominating the conversation. Part of it was just catching up and asking, “how are you?” He thanked me and told me how appreciative he is. He knew I didn’t have any choice.

What can someone who is petitioning for clemency do if they don’t have a celebrity behind their case?

After all legal options are exhausted and you’re only up for a commutation or a pardon, then you need to get the executive’s attention. You need to figure out what their priorities are for who they’ll grant clemency to — but know that having a celebrity can bring attention to the file, but that file doesn’t change. It’s not that you’re associated with a celebrity that your case got better, it’s that you have a good case for clemency or you don’t. If a person has no business getting that clemency request granted, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you have.

Can you take us back to the moment you sentenced Chris Young?

At the time of sentencing, Chris had already been in prison for a couple of years. He had spent the last year working on his allocution (a formal statement to the court by a defendant). It was about all the things he would’ve done in life, but for this. He starts going through it and I keep thinking that if he wants to go an hour, two hours I’m going to let him because when he finishes I have to say: “life.”

If anyone is getting a mandatory sentence, you have to remember these are still people. You need to give them a chance to talk. It was the worst time I’ve ever had on the bench. I knew it was a mandatory life sentence. He knew it was a mandatory life sentence.

How do mandatory minimums impact the way judges do their jobs?

When I say, “The sentence is imposed as stated,” that’s serious. Someone gets handcuffs put on and is escorted from the room.

Being a judge is a pretty important job. The White House vetted me before my name was put up for a nomination. The Department of Justice, the FBI, the Senate Judiciary Committee have all looked into me. When we put someone on the bench, there’s vetting so we know we have someone we can trust to use their discretion. If you’re just going to tell me what to do, what sentence to hand down, then pick anyone, you don’t need me anymore.

Are mandatory minimums detrimental to our criminal justice system?

We can’t create a just sentence without taking into account the individual. How did you get here? What kind of sentence do you need to become productive when released?

Do we want to send someone back into our communities who has no skills, hasn’t gotten the mental health or drug treatment they need? We need to get them ready to return to society. You can’t have a just sentence without taking all of that into account.

Meanwhile, mandatory minimums take none of that into account. All they look at is: What was the crime? It’s not justice. We need to start taking a second look at cases, especially those who have done the work on the inside already. We have to ask more, “are they more valuable on the outside?” Most of the time the answer to that is going to be, “yes, yes they are.”

You resigned from your lifelong judicial appointment after about six years. Is that rare?

You just don’t hear of it. People have worked their entire professional careers to get to this position. For life, you’ll now be the judge. People call you your honor and stand up when you walk into the room and laugh at your jokes whether or not they’re funny. You retire, they put your painting on the wall.

I thought I would do that. But what I realized is our criminal justice system is a mess. It’s still the best there is, but there is so much we could do to make it better. And one of those things has got to be get rid of mandatory minimums. Let the judges do what you ask them to do.

I got to the point where I’m thinking: “Is my role in society better on the bench or off the bench? Am I better off the bench working and advocating for a more fair criminal justice system?”

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