In mid-April, Kevin Sharp resigned from his post on a federal court in Tennessee where he served as chief US District Judge. The former judge left to establish a fifth office for the firm Sanford Heisler. Sharp has expressed excitement at the prospect of being a lawyer again, especially at this firm, which specializes in employment and civil rights.
Sharp spoke of his decision: “It was always in my mind, if I leave the bench, it would only be for these guys.” He added, “I liked being a judge, but I loved being a lawyer. If ever there was an opportunity to come back in while I still have the enthusiasm to be a lawyer, this was the time and place to do it.”
After stepping down from the bench, Sharp spoke with The Tennessean about his deep frustration with the criminal justice system. “Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual.” He continued, “I don’t think that’s happening here.” The former judge referred to a particular case where a boy by the name of Chris Young, 24, was given a life sentence due to a mandatory minimum sentencing policy that requires certain sentences for certain crimes no matter what the circumstance. In this case, Young was a repeat drug offender, which meant that he would have to go to prison in Lexington, Kentucky for the remainder of his life.
No Longer Silent
Once Sharp left the bench, he was free to speak his mind on issues that were once off limits due to ethical requirements placed on judges. In his interview with The Tennessean, he spoke out against mandatory minimums, saying “The drugs-and-guns cases [which require mandatory minimum sentences], you say it like that and it sounds like they’re all dangerous.” He continued, “Most of them are not. They’re just kids who lack any opportunities and any supervision, lack education and have ended up doing what appears to be at the time the path of least resistance to make a living.”
Judge Turns Lawyer
It was clear to those around him that he cared. Hallie McFadden, Young’s attorney, said the former judge would consistently ask about Young. She said, “I’m heartsick to see him go, especially with the prospect of someone far less caring taking the seat.”
In leaving his position as a judge, Sharp hoped to do some good with his skills as a lawyer. He said, “I can be more proactive. I can say things I want to say. I can take cases I want to take. I can advocate for positions that I want to advocate for — as opposed to waiting as a judge, do I get that case or not?”
Some Final Words on Mandatory Minimums
There are a number of reasons to oppose mandatory minimums, not least of which is the disproportionate impact they’ve had on people of color. Black people make up 34 percent of crack users and 80 percent of people in prison for crack-related offenses. And this is due mostly to mandatory minimum policies that give egregious punishments for crack possession. Tougher sentencing policies were supposed to reduce the flow of drugs onto the streets, but in fact, they’ve had the opposite effect. Additionally, they’ve done nothing to reduce recidivism.
During his presidency, Barack Obama attempted to address the fact that half the people in federal prisons are nonviolent drug offenders. In addition to the directive from the DOJ asking prosecutors to divert resources away from nonviolent drug offenders, Obama granted 1,715 clemencies to people who were in prison for drug-related offences. That’s more clemencies than the last 12 presidents combined.
Now, with a “law and order” president, the future of criminal justice in this country looks grim, but hopefully people like Kevin Sharp can do some good in the meantime.