Christopher Young always practiced his speech in the shower. He would speak quickly, far more quickly than in casual conversation, but not because he was nervous. He would do it because he had to — other inmates were waiting for the shower.
Young had been locked up in Kentucky's Warren County Jail for four years. After he and 27 other men were arrested in 2010 as part of a drug conspiracy in his hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, most of the others took plea deals and began serving out their sentences. Young, believing that the length of the sentence in the plea deal offered to him was unreasonably long, chose to go to trial.
While locked up, Young studied encyclopedias at the jail library, hoping, he says, to better himself while behind bars. The notes he took as he pored over the books formed the basis of his speech, which he was preparing to give at his sentencing hearing. He wanted to contrast the amazing achievements made by people throughout US history with his own lost potential, and compare the experiences of accomplished black Americans with his own experience of falling into drug dealing.
On September 28, 2014, Young was led into the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit. As he entered, he locked eyes with Sunny Koshy, the assistant US district attorney who had prosecuted his case. Koshy's eyes, Young says, never left him.
After a few minutes of courtroom formalities, Chief United States District Court Judge Kevin H. Sharp asked Young if he wished to say anything to the court. It was the moment for which the 27-year-old Young had been preparing. He approached the podium to speak — but not to proclaim his innocence or ask for leniency.
Christopher Young knew he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison.
* * *
A jury had previously found Young guilty of three felonies in 2013. For the next year, he sat in jail waiting to be officially sentenced, though there was little doubt what his punishment was going to be thanks to decades-old federal sentencing laws that mandate certain punishments for drug-related crimes.
As the 1990s began, a period of steadily rising crime in the United States was reaching its zenith. Media reports blamed it in large part on a so-called crack epidemic in the country that was fueling violent crime. Politicians took notice, and the US Congress responded by creating mandatory punishments for drug crimes based on two factors: the kind and amount of drugs involved. The laws effectively stripped federal judges of their ability to consider things like the extent of the person's involvement in a crime or the person's character when sentencing drug offenders.
Because punishments are determined by the amount of drugs associated with the crime, prosecutors know exactly how much they need to prove was involved in order to trigger mandatory sentences. To secure a guilty plea and avoid having to go to trial, prosecutors can use the threat of a harsh mandatory minimum sentence by informing the defendant that if the case goes to trial, the judge will have no choice but to impose the lengthy sentence. If someone is convicted of possessing 280 grams or more of crack, for example, the corresponding mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years, no matter what the judge says. If defendants are willing to plead guilty, however, prosecutors will sometimes reduce the amount of drugs in the charge in order to allow for a lighter sentence. Sometimes, they'll agree to dismiss other charges altogether.
"Most sentencing is being driven by prosecutors," Berkeley University law professor Barry Krisberg said. "Individualized assessment is largely a myth."
Today, only 3 percent of federal offenders choose to fight their cases in front of a jury; the other 97 percent plead guilty. According to a VICE News analysis of data from the US Sentencing Commission, the majority of federal cocaine trafficking offenders in 2014 who pleaded guilty received a sentence of nine years or less. The average sentence for federal cocaine trafficking offenders who went to trial was about double that, and nearly a third of those who went to trial received a sentence of 20 years or more (excluding life sentences).
Federal drug sentencing "really causes people to second-guess, if not abandon, their right to trial," said Jeffery S. Frensley, who represents a group of private attorneys paid under the Criminal Justice Act to work with indigent defendants. "Those laws that punish you for going to trial have a chilling effect on the exercise of such a right."
Frensley calls this "the litigation tax."
Young says he declined a plea deal of 14 years that Koshy initially offered because he felt it was too harsh. But according to Young, Koshy's second offer wasn't fewer years — it was more, at 22. At the time of his arrest, Young was 22, and he says he couldn't bring himself to sign up for the equivalent of his lifetime in prison.
Watch the VICE special report, 'Fixing the System.'
"I don't think fear should be a factor," Young told VICE News at McCreary, the federal prison in Pine Knot, Kentucky, where he is currently incarcerated. "I thought, If I lose, I get life. If I win, I go home. It was worth the risk."
The average sentence given to the 23 defendants in the drug conspiracy who accepted a plea deal was 14 years. The highest sentence among them was 25 years; the lowest was two and a half years.
Young and the two other men who chose to go to trial all received life sentences.
* * *
Koshy also filed what's known as an 851 enhancement in Young's case. This provision targets repeat drug offenders by allowing prosecutors to substantially increase a penalty for someone who already has one or two prior drug felonies on his or her record. In Young's case, the 851 raised the mandatory minimum sentence to life due to two earlier felony convictions he had: one for drug possession with a firearm in 2006, and another for possession of less than a half-gram of cocaine in 2007.
"As the laws have gotten tougher and as we moved into sentencing codes where a variety of enhancements, of penalties, sounded good politically, they bind the court," Krisberg said. "The court has no choice but to use these enhancements."
This is a fact not lost on judges. In a 2013 opinion, Judge Mark W. Bennett of the Northern District Court of Iowa called the "arbitrary application" of sentencing enhancements "a deeply disturbing, yet often replayed, shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing."
Because the choice to apply an 851 enhancement is up to individual federal prosecutors, there are vast discrepancies in how it's used. Sometimes an 851 enhancement is filed and later withdrawn if a defendant is willing to plead guilty.
"851s are frequently used as a plea-bargain hammer hanging over the defendant's head," Bennett told VICE News. "They can be withdrawn anytime prior to sentencing; the prosecutor can say, 'If you plead guilty, we'll withdraw it.'"
The United States Penitentiary at McCreary, where Young is housed. (Photo by Taylor Dolven/VICE News)
The Department of Justice released data about the application of 851s for the first and only time in 2011, covering 14,000 cases in the years 2006, 2008, and 2009. In these years, Tennessee had the greatest disparity in its application of 851s between districts of any state the country. The Department of Justice is not currently monitoring the use of 851 enhancements, but in a statement to VICE News, a spokesperson said the DOJ is "working with the Sentencing Commission to examine data on the imposition of 851 sentence enhancements."
"The length of your sentence is based on your willingness to forgo your right to trial, not what you did or your culpability," said Jamie Fellner, author of a Human Rights Watch report about the abuse of prosecutorial power titled An Offer You Can't Refuse. "That is a violation of your rights."
* * *
Young doesn't dispute he was doing something wrong.
On December 10, 2010, he was arrested at a Shell gas station in Clarksville. Young was with Robert Porter, who was later identified as the leader of the drug conspiracy, and two others. The DEA had been tapping Porter's phone for six months prior to the arrest, but Young hadn't been one of the targets of the wiretap investigation.
According to police, Young was standing on the passenger side of Porter's car, talking to him. Eight ounces of cocaine and six ounces of crack were found in Porter's car, and $10,000 in cash was found on the ground close to where Young was standing. Young's car, parked nearby, had a handgun in the console. The gas station is located within 1,000 feet of a school.
Young and his two co-defendants, Demetrius Duncan and Alto Parnell, exercised their right to trial by jury. The trial had been going on for four days when then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo to all federal prosecutors on August 12, 2013 as part of his office's Smart on Crime Initiative, which aimed to enforce federal law more fairly.
"We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers," Holder wrote. "In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution. Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation."
'I look at this like I'm in college. I don't get to go to frat parties or talk to women, but this is the time to get my skill set. When I'm reading in my cell, it's like I'm studying in my dorm room.'
The memo laid out guidelines. Prosecutors were encouraged to assess not just the quantitative aspects of the crime, but also to consider the defendant's circumstances and ensure that applying an 851 would not result in a "gross sentencing disparity with equally or more culpable co-defendants."
Nevertheless, Koshy went ahead with the 851, and Young was found guilty of conspiracy with intent to possess and distribute 500 grams of cocaine and 280 grams of crack, intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a high school, and knowingly possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He'd already pleaded guilty to a fourth charge — felon in possession of a firearm.
On August 29, six days after Young was found guilty, Holder made a second announcement urging prosecutors to apply his new directives to any defendant who had not yet been sentenced, which at the time included Young.
Young's public defender, Hallie McFadden, emailed Koshy with a request to consider rescinding the 851 enhancement in light of the new guidelines. She argued that his prior convictions were low-level drug offenses, one of them involving less than half a gram of cocaine; that he was not the leader of the conspiracy; that the gun in his car's console was not being used in a crime; and that the automatic life sentence that would result from the 851 would produce a huge sentence disparity when compared to Porter's plea-deal sentence of 25 years. But despite her arguments and Holder's memos, Koshy told McFadden that he intended to apply the 851.
"I felt like I was going to vomit," she says of receiving Koshy's reply.
On September 8, 2014, Young was sentenced to two life terms.
"The three least culpable guys that I've seen come through are getting the harshest penalties," Sharp said during Duncan's sentencing hearing. "I don't know how to fix that."
Koshy, however, insists that Young did not meet each of the criteria laid out by Holder for avoiding harsh mandatory minimum sentencing.
"It is clear that the defendant possessed/brought a loaded firearm to the drug transaction," Koshy's office told VICE News in a statement. "It cannot be said that he is nonviolent. Also, based on the multiple discussions that the defendant was having regarding the previous multiple purchases of cocaine and the large quantities of cocaine being purchased, coupled with his practice to cook the cocaine into larger quantities of crack for profit, it cannot be said that he was a low-level drug dealer. The assumption you make that the Attorney General's Guidelines were ignored is simply without merit and nothing could be further from the truth."
The difference of opinion is indicative of the issues surrounding Holder's guidelines.
"If you look at the terms of the Holder memos, you'll find that they're written in very broad terms," Barkow said. This, she said, creates the possibility of vastly different readings of the guidelines by different prosecutors.
* * *
After he was sentenced, Young was flown to the Bureau of Prisons federal transfer center in Oklahoma for processing. It was the first time he'd ever been on an airplane.
He was then transferred to Kentucky to begin serving his time. He now says he misses the library at the county jail; the only books to which he has access are the ones he convinces friends to mail him. He's currently a math tutor for prisoners taking classes toward their GED.
Young is over six feet tall and walks with a limp due, he says, to the effects of sickle cell anemia. Though he never had braces, his teeth are perfect. He peppers his conversation with the phrases "so forth and so on," and "that's what's up." And he says he deserved only a six- to eight-year sentence.
"It doesn't take 10 years for a person to get it together," he said. "I look at this like I'm in college. I don't get to go to frat parties or talk to women, but this is the time to get my skill set. When I'm reading in my cell, it's like I'm studying in my dorm room."
Young grew up in Clarksville, about an hour's drive from Nashville. For much of his childhood, even running water was a luxury for him and his brother, Robert. Their mother, Penny Hooker, had a history of drug abuse and was in and out of jail for much of Young's childhood; Young never met his biological father. As they grew up, the boys bounced around between the homes of family and neighbors.
Christopher Young at McCreary. (Photo via Christopher Young)
"It's hard to pay attention to a book when you feel nasty, when you are getting made fun of for your appearance, when you are wearing clothes from the day before and your shoes have holes in them," Young said. He cleans his cell at least once a day. He sometimes showers twice a day.
Young started selling drugs as a teen, and began making money. Kids in the neighborhood, he says, eventually began hunting him down on report card day because they knew he would award cash to anyone who scored As and Bs.
"Cs could still get some money," Young said. "Ds, I'd run my mouth a bit."
Young and his brother eventually found themselves in the care of a neighbor named Dorothy Brown, known to friends around the neighborhood as Big Mama. Young has a tattoo of her home address on his left arm. Now 73, with dark scarlet red hair and a guttural, smoky laugh, she says she thinks of Young as a grandson.
"When they give them a sentence, I don't care what kind of sentence they get, all mothers, sisters, and children get the same sentence 'cause they have to live that sentence with them," said Brown, who also has a son and a grandson in prison. "So when they convict them, that convicts the whole family."
Photographs of the many children for whom Brown has cared over the years adorn her walls, bookcases, and serving trays. A few of the children are now in prison, others are doing well — and some, like Young's brother, Robert, are dead. On New Year's Day 2007, Young found Robert on their mother's couch with a bullet in his head from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot.
"I felt like the only person that understood all the adversity I'd been through was gone," Young said. "I was lost, and I made a lot of bad decisions."
One of the last things Young bought before getting arrested was a pair of Nike Air Jordan Retro XIII Flints, for which he paid more than $500. After he was incarcerated, he gave them to his longtime friend Clinton Person. Young now encourages Person to wear them. Instead, Person keeps them in his closet in mint condition in case Young ever gets out.
"I feel like we were already trained for a lot of it," Person says about prison. "A lot of the same aggression and injustices, the same adversity you face in there, we faced in our environment growing up."
* * *
At his sentencing hearing, Young stood at the court's podium, wondering whether he would remember how to pronounce everything correctly in the speech he had been preparing from jail for the last year. He did not have any notes.
"First and foremost, I'd like to say thank you, your Honorable Judge Sharp, and to the courts for letting me speak today," he began. "I hope everyone here has been having a good morning."
As Young began discussing a speech George Washington gave in 1783, Sharp interrupted him. Used to having to hurry the speech while practicing in the jail shower, Young was speaking incredibly fast.
"Can I stop you for a second and slow you down a little bit so that I can catch what you're saying?" Sharp said. "I want to listen to you — and also, the court reporter has to take it down."
More slowly, Young touched on American history, economic theory, art history, and Greek philosophy, displaying the knowledge that came from years spent in the county jail library devouring encyclopedias.
He said that young kids from Clarksville "don't see anybody that's successful in his community unless they're a big-time drug dealer or a rapper…. [The kids] couldn't tell you that Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express, a large financial provider, is a black man, and he could be successful like him."
Young's mother listened to her son in the courtroom and felt, she says, proud. Brown, the caretaker whose address is tattooed on Young's arm, remained outside the courtroom, unable to bring herself to go in. Young's friends in attendance laughed when he said that he assumed Sharp didn't like rap music.
"How do you know that?" Sharp responded.
As he spoke, Young repeated one phrase, or a variation of it, over and over again: "If given a chance to be released back into society within a reasonable amount of time…."
"Thank you for treating me like a man and looking at me like a man," Young said at the end of his speech. "Some people, they naturally look at us like we're something else just because we've made mistakes and we've ended up on the other side of the law."
As Young sat down, he looked over at his mother and saw her rocking back forth, trying to keep calm.
The end of Young's speech wasn't the end of the hearing. Koshy now addressed the courtroom.
"Mr. Young mentioned a lot of people that I know nothing about," the prosecutor said of Young's speech. "This Court and the defendant are much better read than I. I live in the gutters, and I see the pain the defendant has caused all those people during this life in this conspiracy. That's what this is about. That's why Congress has enacted the laws that it has."
Young felt like he had accomplished his goal. His speech was documented, a public record of his "pensive, erudite, and intelligent side that doesn't get shown as much." One friend of his in the courtroom had whispered, "That's some real shit" to another. Young would later send the speech to friends who hadn't been there to hear it.
But before Young left the courtroom, there was one last order of business.
"Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual," Sharp told the court. "I don't think that's happening here. But you are sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for life."
Data analysis contributed by Aram Chung.