Federal judges retire, not as frequently as other government and private sector employees but eventually they do leave the bench, one way or the other. The ABA Journal reports that federal judges, like many other retirees, retire because they can earn more money in the private sector.


But there are a few federal judges who because of job dissatisfaction; namely, because they are part of a system that dispenses justice in a consistently unfair manner. Sentencing people to serious mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment, especially for criminal conduct that does not fit the punishment, can take a debilitating toll of judges who subscribe to the notion of a fundamental fairness that embodies the principle that the punishment should fit the crime.


Federal Sentencing, Mandatory Minimums Unfair


As we pointed out in a recent post (April 16), the federal sentencing scheme is both uncertain and unfair. This sentencing scheme, not the lure of more money, prompted the former chief U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, Hon. Kevin Sharp, to step down from the bench on April 15, 2017 because he had recently sentenced a man to life in prison without the possibility for parole for criminal conduct the judge did not believe warranted a life sentence.


According to an article published on April 17, 2017 in The Tennessean, Chris Young, a repeat drug offender with two prior drug convictions, was subject to a mandatory life sentence under the federal sentencing scheme—a sentence that does not allow parole eligibility. Judge Sharp had no choice in the matter. Federal law mandated that the life sentence be imposed.


Judge Retires, Tears Welled Up as Described Injustice


“If there was any way I could not have given him life in prison, I would have done it,” the 56-year-old retired judge told the newspaper as tears welled up in his eyes. “What [Chris Young] did was wrong; [he] deserved some time in prison, but not life.”


The former judge’s speech choked off with emotion.


Federal Judges Unsatisfied Nationwide


Other federal judges may not feel as emotional as Judge Sharp but some feel just as intensely about the unfairness they must administer when handing down criminal sentences. In January 2016, we wrote about such a judge – New York’s U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson whose years long effort to correct a sentencing injustice done to Francois Holloway was featured in the Wall Street Journal. Holloway had been convicted and sentenced to 57 years in prison by Judge Gleeson on federal carjacking charges. The harsh sentence came after Holloway rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in an 11-year sentence. After rejecting the plea deal, federal prosecutors demanded a 45-year term because one of Holloway’s co-defendants brandished a weapon during one of the three carjackings they committed. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended an additional eleven years for other crimes committed by Holloway.


That case was never about the seriousness of the offenses. The Government was willing to let Holloway plead to an 11-year sentence. It was only after he elected to stand trial that prosecutors demanded a 45-year mandatory minimum sentence because a weapon had been brandished during one of the three carjackings. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines demanded the additional eleven years for other criminal offenses committed by Holloway. That was the eleven years the Government offered in exchange for a guilty plea.


Mandatory Minimums Used to Force Pleas


With the plea deal off the table, the inescapable problem faced by Judge Gleeson was this: the 1992 Carjacking Prevention Emergency Amendment Act proscribed a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years when a weapon is used in a carjacking offense. Inasmuch as Holloway had been convicted on three counts of carjacking, Judge Gleeson had no choice but to impose a mandatory 45-year minimum sentence.


The Holloway case revolved around one issue: prosecutorial vindictiveness. The government wanted him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law because he exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial. Prosecutors offered Holloway the 11-year plea deal and penalized him with an additional 46 years after he elected to stand trial. Prosecutors used the full force of the carjacking statute to create this unfair sentencing situation.


Judge Pleas to US Attorney for Relief


Holloway exhausted all his direct appeal remedies before turning to a federal law that allowed him to challenge his sentence as being excessive. The sentence reduction motion ended up before Judge Gleeson who lobbied the U.S. Attorney’s Office not to oppose the motion. He told prosecutors that Holloway had maintained an “extraordinary” prison record and that the victims of his carjacking offenses did not oppose his release from prison.


Judge Gleeson then vacated two of Holloway’s convictions and re-sentenced him to time-served without any opposition from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.


Lauding prosecutors’ decision not to oppose Holloway’s, Judge Gleeson said: “Prosecutors are almost never criticized for being aggressive… Doing justice can be much harder.”


Thanks to Judge Gleeson, Francois Holloway walked out of prison 30 years earlier than he expected.


Federal Mandatory Life Sentence


The problem Judge Sharp faced in the Chris Young case was markedly different. Young had two prior drug convictions. There was no getting around that—those convictions could not be reversed. Those two convictions and his current conviction mandated a life term. He is now 26 years of age and is housed in a federal prison in Lexington. By the normal male life expectancy, he will spend the next 50 years in prison before he dies for relatively minor drug involvement.


Holloway walked out of prison in 2014. That same year Chris Young walked into a prison where he will spend the rest of his natural life.


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


Harsh Sentence Weighs on Judge’s Conscience


The Young case has weighed on Judge Sharp for the past three years. It forced the Memphis native looked back over his 20-year professional career as a lawyer.  “I realized that what we do defines who we are,” he told The Tennessean. “People meet me and they go, ‘Nice to meet you, Kevin, what do you do?’”


That question most assuredly made Judge Sharp uncomfortable. How could he explain, much less justify, protecting society by sending a small-time drug offender to prison for the rest of his life.


Sharp does not have to be embarrassed any longer. He now works for a prestigious law firm in Nashville that specializes in civil rights and employment law.


“African-Americans, women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities don’t have the same opportunities [as mainstream society],” Sharp told the newspaper. “That to me is something important, making sure the playing field gets leveled.”


Judge Committed to Righting Wrong


Sharp made one final point to the newspaper: he will work tirelessly to get Young released from prison, knowing that endeavor could take a decade or more.


Judge Kevin Sharp serves our profession well.