Article from Reason by C.J. Ciaramella.

In 2014, 26-year-old Tennessee resident Chris Young was sentenced to life in federal prison for a drug offense. The judge in his case had no choice but to sentence him to die behind bars under an obscure “three strikes” law for prior drug crimes after prosecutors filed what’s known as an 851 notice.

The filing, known for the section of the U.S. Code from which it’s derived, was originally intended to give prosecutors leeway to avoid some of the harshest mandatory minimums on the books. But as the drug war expanded, the threat of an 851 filing became a prosecutorial bullying tactic used to dissuade defendants from exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial. It also ties the hands of judges, taking away any discretion they have over sentencing, and has sent hundreds of drug offenders to prison for life. Congress may take up reforms soon—but only if “tough-on-crime” conservative senators and President Trump’s new acting attorney general don’t scuttle the legislation.

Prosecutors responded by filing an 851 notice against him, using two prior low-level crack cocaine offenses that he’d caught when he was 18 and 19 years old. The combined weight of the drugs in Young’s previous convictions amounted to about 7.5 grams, or roughly the weight of three pennies.

In 2013, a jury found Young guilty of drug conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine, attempted possession with intent to sell within 1,000 feet of a school, and possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug crime. Because Young had at least two prior drug convictions, Sharp was bound by the law to sentence the 26-year-old to life in federal prison.

Read the entire article at Reason.

Image Credit: By St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons