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FreedomWorks recently announced the launch of the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.
Chris Young was 22 in 2010, when he was arrested for his third minor drug offense, one of nearly 30 people rounded up for selling crack and powder cocaine in his hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. Like many young men caught up in similar situations, Young had a difficult childhood. His mother was a drug addict who was often in jail while he was growing up, so Young grew up extremely impoverished, also suffering the trauma of his older brother committing suicide when Chris was only 18. Young himself admits that “I was lost, and I made a lot of bad decisions." Few would question that this was someone stuck in a bad pattern, and who needed some time away from society to hopefully change his mindset and behavior.
Young was arrested while talking to a man “who was later identified as the leader of the drug conspiracy,” and was charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and possession of a firearm. In spite of his youth and the petty amounts of drugs he was caught with, the fact that his previous minor drug offenses were classified as felonies, and the fact that a gun was merely present, meant that prosecutors could choose to stack a number of penalties together and pursue the sort of prison sentences meant for kingpins — life in federal prison.
Prosecutors offered Young a plea bargain of 14 years imprisonment instead, and when he balked at that length of sentence they upped it to 22 years. Rather than take a sentence equal to the number of years he had already lived, Young chose to go to trial instead. Prosecutors responded by seeking every possible stacked charge they could — the “trial penalty” seen so often among defendants who attempt to exercise their Fifth Amendment right to a trial by jury.
Once Young was found guilty, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp was bound by federal sentencing laws to hand Young a life sentence, lamenting to the court that “Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual. I don’t think that is happening here.” Sharp was so disturbed by Young’s sentence in particular that he resigned his lifetime judicial appointment to work to reform the sort of draconian sentencing guidelines that forced him to hand a bright, troubled young man an effective death sentence (the federal criminal justice system lacks a mechanism for parole).
Young went to his sentencing hearing having already been imprisoned for three years since his initial arrest, and knowing full well that he was about to receive a life sentence for his crimes. He had used the intervening time to prepare a speech based on all of the voracious reading he had done in the prison library, which moved Judge Sharp to later recall,
“I'm listening to this young man talk, and I realize: we are about to waste a human life. This kid is smart, he's made a mistake and deserves to be punished. But we're gonna send him away for life. And this is not only unjust for him and his family, but the rest of us too, because we're taking somebody out of society who I really think and thought at the time and more convinced today could be a valuable member and has something to contribute.”
Guidelines like mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, automatic stacking sentences, and truth-in-sentencing laws were well-intentioned. A highly publicized string of far-too-lenient sentences handed down by various judges across the country led to a demand for ways to ensure that truly dangerous criminals weren’t just being put right back on the street. In practice, though, they led to a multitude of cases like Young’s, effectively stripping judges of their primary duty — to use their judgement in sentencing as the case may warrant — and handing the vast majority of authority in criminal cases over to the prosecution.
For his part, Young has spent his time in a maximum-security federal prison — a minor drug offender in with the most dangerous, hardened, violent criminals — continuing to educate himself and to help others do the same. He tutors inmates trying to earn their GEDs, and has managed to teach himself coding and computer programming, holding onto hope that he will be able to use them to “supply the needed technology to prevent another young man or woman from being in such a critical situation because of bad choices.”
Young has become one of the prisoners whose unduly harsh sentences have been highlighted nationally by the likes of Kim Kardashian, with former-Judge Sharp advocating strongly on his behalf all the while. Now 32, he, like so many other federal inmates who have done the work to rehabilitate themselves, nevertheless remains at the mercy of a presidential pardon or commutation as his only hope for a chance to escape a long, grim lifetime in a prison cell.