Posted April 5th, 2020.
The justice project brings out how judges have resigned while refusing to punish a young offender
By Pritha Paul
There have been instances over the years where federal judges have resigned over their refusal to hand down mandatory minimum sentences to first time offenders or criminals convicted of drug offenses which ranged from several years behind the bars to life imprisonment.
According to Criminal Justice Policy Foundation: “Mandatory minimum sentencing laws force a judge to hand down a minimum prison sentence based on the charges a prosecutor brings against a defendant which results in a conviction — usually a guilty plea. Many states have such laws. These laws take away from a judge the traditional and proper authority to account for the actual circumstances of the crime and the characteristics of the individual defendant when imposing a sentence.”
‘Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project’ takes a closer look at cases where convicts have been awarded the maximum jail term for crimes that would have otherwise earned them a lesser sentence if mandatory minimum sentences did not exist.
At one point in the documentary, Kim Kardashian admits that she thinks mandatory minimum sentencing was “one of the scariest” things in the justice system. She goes on to explain why. “Emotions, details, personal information — all of that is completely out the door and the judge has no power to rule on what he feels was the right thing to do versus what he has to do. And I have worked with judges that have resigned over this,” the ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashian’ star says.
One of those judges was Kevin Sharp. A former federal judge in Tennessee, he joined the bench in 2011 and stepped down in 2017, refusing to hand down mandatory sentences.
“I started realizing the sentences that I was having to hand down were much too harsh. Congress has stepped in and taken away the discretion of the judge on what the sentence should be — a fair sentence. And mandated what that sentence should be. That to me was not what I signed on for. That was wrong and that was something that I could not do and would not do again,” Sharp said in the documentary.
Lawrence Bartley, of the Marshall Project — a nonprofit, online journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the United States — also echoed Sharp’s comments.
“Now if a judge has a young kid come in front of him or her… there might be a lot of mitigating circumstances. The kid could come from a poor household, a woman could be someone that was raped. Or it could be a kid who was tricked by an adult in order to traffic drugs from one state to another. But because of mandatory minimum sentencing, the judge won’t take into consideration all the mitigating circumstances that led that person to commit that crime,” he said.
Alice Marie Johnson
The very first case that Kardashian got involved with that announced to the world that she was keen on following in her father’s footsteps was of now ex-prison inmate Alice Marie Johnson, who was released from prison in 2018 after President Donald Trump commuted her sentence. Despite being a first-time offender, her involvement in a Memphis, Tennessee-based cocaine trafficking organization earned Johnson life imprisonment without parole in 1997 due to mandatory minimum sentence.
The month after her release in July 2018, Johnson called for an end to mandatory sentencing and became an advocate for criminal justice reform in the United States.
“There must never be a time that a non-violent first offender like myself can receive the harshest sentence next to the death penalty… life without the possibility of parole. You’re saying that my life is not redeemable,” she said at the time, the Hill reported. “When people hear ‘without the possibility of parole’ they think that I must have committed some heinous crime to have received some executed sentence of death, but that’s not the case, and so the whole structure of prison must be relooked at.”
Momolu SK Stewart
Another example of the harsh impact of mandatory sentencing that the documentary focused on was that of Momolu SK Stewart who was a juvenile lifer at the District of Columbia Correctional Treatment Facility. At the age of 16, Stewart was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, second-degree murder while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.
Partnering with lawyer Jessica Jackson with criminal justice advocacy group Cut50, Kardashian visited Stewart in prison and heard how he was led into a life of crime.
Stewart had a difficult childhood growing up. After his mother became a victim of domestic violence, she and her boyfriend ended up killing his father. After his mother was arrested, he moved into his aunt’s house where he witnessed his uncle selling home appliances to buy drugs. After being verbally and physically abused by him, Stewart ran away at the age of 14 and moved in with his friends.
In order to survive, he and his friends started selling drugs in the locality. When a local drug dealer threatened both his friend’s as well as his mother’s life, he confronted the dealer and a shootout ensued where the dealer was killed. Both Stewart and his friend received life sentences despite being teenagers.
However, his friend was released in 2018, while he remained inside the prison.
Kardashian agreed to write a letter on his behalf to the D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Salerno, requesting his release because she believed Stewart should be freed if he was sentenced for the same crime as his friend.
Based on the 2017 Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act — the law that allows inmates who committed crimes when they were younger than 18 and spent at least 15 years in prison a chance to have their sentences shortened — Stewart filed an appeal to have his sentence reduced.
Due to his remorse and commitment to education, while imprisoned, the judge granted the petition to reduce the life sentence of Stewart to time served in October 2019, according to Refinery 29. He was released from prison after 23 years.