Another Federal Judge is Speaking Out against Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Congress needs to address the issue.

A federal judge in Tennessee retired on Friday after serving six years on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee — denouncing mandatory minimum sentencing laws that require judges to administer prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes.

“If there was any way I could have not given him life in prison I would have done it,” said Kevin Sharp, the now-former federal judge, recalling a sentencing hearing in 2014. “What they did was wrong, they deserved some time in prison, but not life.”

Mandatory minimums undermine the United States’ commitment to justice and fairness by preventing judges from taking into account an individual’s background and the circumstances of their offenses in the sentencing determination. As a result, they’ve caused our prison populations to soar, leading to overcrowding and exorbitant costs to taxpayers. And that explosion of the prison population has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, particularly African-American communities.

Sharp is not the first federal judge to speak out about mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In August 2012, Judge Mark W. Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa wrote in The Nation that he’s sent more than 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders to federal prison.

“If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do,” Bennett wrote. “I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.”

In 2014, Judge John Gleeson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (who retired in 2016) expressed regret for the harsh human toll of mandatory minimums.

“Mandatory minimums, to some degree, sometimes entirely, take judging out of the mix. That’s a bad thing for our system,” Gleeson told NPR. “We talk about numbers, but at the end of the process it’s not a number that’s getting the sentence. It’s a person, a person with a family from a community.”

In 2015, Judge Paul Cassell, who served until 2007 on the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, spoke to ABC’s “Nightline” about his ruling in the case of Weldon Angelos, who Cassell sentenced to 55 years in prison. In February 2016, Cassell actually wrote to President Obama asking him to commute Angelos’ sentence — but thanks to a federal court’s reduction of his sentence, he was released in May 2016.

Angelos’ case has been cited by lawmakers as justification for legislation to fix what many view as an unjust system. When the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was introduced in October 2015, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., noted that “Real people, like Weldon Angelos, are paying with decades of their lives. We must keep pushing and see that this bill is enacted.” In floor speeches and events, Sens. Cory Booker, D. N.J., and Mike Lee, R. Utah, have also shared his story.

Despite bipartisan support, that bill never got a floor vote in the last session of Congress.

Learn more about sentencing and mandatory minimums here.