A lot has changed since Christopher Young, 30, was sentenced to life in prison under the federal three-strikes law for a drug crime in 2014. He earned his GED, taught himself to code, and got surgery to fix his hip, which had deteriorated from sickle cell anemia and caused a limp. He missed the funeral of the woman who raised him in Clarksville, Tennessee. Donald Trump became president.
And most recently, his case has caught the attention of Kim Kardashian, who attended a meeting with White House staff Wednesday to advocate for his release. In June, Kardashian successfully lobbied for clemency for Alice Johnson, a former inmate who was also sentenced to life in prison for a drug crime. Young has talked to Kardashian on the phone a couple of times over the summer from federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I have talked to Kim on the phone a couple of times through the past few months … incredibly nice, kind and considerate,” Young, 30, wrote in an email to VICE News Wednesday. Young was the subject of a VICE News 2015 feature story about mandatory minimum sentencing.
He was arrested in 2010, when he was 22, for his role in a large drug conspiracy case, and has been incarcerated ever since.
Young was homeless for long stretches of his childhood, and his mother, a single parent, suffered from a drug addiction and was in and out of jail. He began participating in the neighborhood drug business as a teenager with his brother as a way to earn money.
Just after he turned 18, Young was convicted of possession of cocaine, marijuana and a weapon — his first strike. In 2007, his brother killed himself, and Young was left on his own.
Later that year, at age 19, Young was convicted of possession of less than half a gram of cocaine and marijuana — his second strike. His third strike, which would require a mandatory life sentence, was a 2010 drug bust. He was 22.
Federal investigators had led a monthslong wiretap investigation of a drug ring led by Robert Porter, a friend of Young’s, but Young was not a target of the investigation. On the day authorities decided to arrest Porter, they closed in on him at a gas station in Clarksville. Young was standing outside Porter’s car talking to him.
Officials found eight ounces of cocaine and six ounces of crack in Porter's car, and $10,000 in cash on the ground close to where Young was standing. Young's car, parked nearby, had a handgun in the console, and the gas station where the takedown happened is located within 1,000 feet of a school — factors that instantly increased the seriousness of the crime.
Twenty-three people arrested in the conspiracy, including Porter, took plea deals, and the average sentence was 14 years. Young felt 14 years was too long of a punishment for his minor role in the conspiracy, so he and two others took their cases to trial. They all received life sentences under mandatory sentencing laws.
"The three least culpable guys that I've seen come through are getting the harshest penalties," said then-federal judge Kevin Sharp at one of Young’s co-defendant’s sentencing hearings in 2014. "I don't know how to fix that."
Sharp stepped down from the bench in April after just six years of his lifetime judgeship to fight for clemency for Young with his lawyer, Brittany Barnett, who also represented Johnson. Both attended the Wednesday White House meeting with Kardashian to advocate for Young's release.
Kardashian announced she was joining their efforts on the Wrongful Conviction podcast with Jason Flom on Wednesday.
“I was on the phone with the judge who sentenced him to life, who resigned because he had never been on the side of having to do something so unfair, and now he is fighting with us to get him out,” Kardashian said. “It was a mandatory sentence that he had to deliver, and he knew it was wrong.”
In June, President Trump commuted the sentence of Johnson after Kardashian met with him personally at the White House to make the case for her release.
There is no parole in the federal system, so clemency from the president is likely Young’s only chance at getting out of prison before he dies. In addition to Young and Johnson, more than 3,000 people were sentenced to life in prison for drug crimes from 1988 until 2016, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data analyzed by the Buried Alive Project.
President Barack Obama granted clemency to 568 people serving life for drug crimes, the Buried Alive analysis showed, compared to just one person under President George W. Bush, and no one under President Bill Clinton.
Cover: Christopher Young in prison. (Photo: Buried Alive Project) and Kim Kardashian attends Harper's BAZAAR Celebration of 'ICONS By Carine Roitfeld' at The Plaza Hotel on September 8, 2017 in New York City. (Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)