Kim Kardashian’s role as a criminal justice advocate didn’t end when she convinced President Donald Trump to commute Alice Marie Johnson’s life sentence back in June; the reality star and lifestyle mogul has “connected” with Chris Young, another Tennessee prisoner serving a life sentence on drug charges thanks to mandatory-sentencing regulations.
“It’s so unfair,” Kardashian said in an interview on Jason Flom’s Wrongful Conviction podcast. “[Chris Young] is 30 years old. He’s been in for almost 10 years.”
On Wednesday, Kardashian was back at the White House for a meeting with Trump about prison reform. She was expected to discuss Young’s case with the President, whom she hopes will commute Young’s sentence, just as he did for Johnson. Johnson, 63, was released after serving 22 years of a life sentence for cocaine trafficking, a punishment Kardashian thought was unfairly harsh for a first-time, non-violent crime in which Johnson played a minor role.
“It started with Ms. Alice, but looking at her and seeing the faces and learning the stories of the men and women I’ve met inside prisons I knew I couldn’t stop at just one,” Kardashian tweeted on Wednesday. “It’s time for REAL systemic change.”
Flom, a longtime music industry executive, is a founding board member of the Innocence Project, and a board member of several other organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has taken its own interest in Young’s case. Mutual acquaintances had already suggested that Kardashian and Flom should meet, so when he reached out about having her on his Wrongful Conviction podcast, she agreed immediately.
“She really dived into this,” Flom tells Rolling Stone. “She’s really like a sponge. She wants to learn and learn and learn. After the thrill of Alice Johnson, she, of course, wants to do more.”
Young’s case immediately resonated with Kardashian, who told Flom that she’s found herself “gravitating towards” cases where life sentences were imposed for minor, non-violent offenses. According to The Tennessean, in 2010, Young was one of 32 people arrested by federal authorities in connection with a drug trafficking ring, after allegedly being seen buying crack cocaine from the ring’s leader. Even though no drugs were found on his person or in his vehicle, Young was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine, along with other charges.
Young declined a plea deal, believing that the 14-year prison sentence prosecutors were offering was unreasonably long. Their second offer was for even more time, 22 years, so Young decided to go to trial instead. Though Young’s alleged role in the overall drug trafficking case was minor in comparison to some of the other defendants, he was one of the few to refuse a plea deal, and prosecutors made him pay for it. They filed what’s called an “851 enhancement,” which would allow them to significantly increase the mandatory minimum sentence if he was found guilty; in Young’s case, his two prior drug convictions — for drug possession with a firearm in 2006, and possession of less than a half-gram of cocaine in 2007 — upped the mandatory minimum sentence to life in prison.
“This is a guy who grew up without running water, just in really desperate situations,” Flom tells Rolling Stone. “Terrible family life, his brother committed suicide when he was 18, he found the body. He has sickle cell anemia. In the neighborhood, he was known as one of those guys who would carry everyone’s groceries. He would help people who were worse off than he was.”
By the time Young was convicted in 2013, he had already been behind bars for three years. At his sentencing hearing in 2014, Young knew that the judge would have no choice but to send him to prison for life; only the prosecutor had the legal authority to withdraw the “851 enhancement,” and he chose not to. When Young was given the opportunity to address the court, he decided not to plead for leniency. Instead, he spoke about the impoverished circumstances in which he grew up, the devastating loss of his brother to suicide, and the mistakes he made in his youth. His speech, which Young had practiced in the prison shower for months, referenced American history, economic theory, art history, and Greek philosophy, and moved several in the courtroom to tears.
Judge Kevin H. Sharp expressed his opposition to the sentence even as he was forced to impose it.
“Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual,” Sharp said about Young incurring such a substantial burden for his relatively insignificant role in the government’s overall case. “I don’t think that’s happening here.”
After Sharp retired in 2017, he gave an interview to USA Today in which he denounced mandatory minimums, and said about Young, “If there was any way I could have not given him life in prison I would have done it.”
Kardashian has been in contact with Sharp, who she said “had never been on the side of having to do something so unfair, and now he is fighting with us to get [Young] out.”
Some have been wary of Kardashian taking a sudden shine to the advocacy work countless others have dedicated their lives to, especially when the speed with which she was able to secure Johnson’s release does not at all reflect the uphill slog that the vast majority of defendants and their attorneys face in seeking relief. Others have pointed out that commuting Johnson’s sentence does nothing to address the laws which made such a harsh penalty possible in the first place, nor does it help the many other citizens who are still serving their time.
“My attitude is we have to work on the micro and macro,” Flom says. “The macro is important, but the micro is in telling those stories. You have to give hope to the people who are still inside that this miracle can occur. You have to give hope to advocates that miracles are possible. … Without these individual human stories it’s much harder to accomplish the macro stuff.”
Regardless of whether Kardashian is able to convince Trump to commute Young’s sentence, Flom believes her interest in criminal justice reform is genuine, and her commitment to learning and doing more is for the long haul.
“I defy anyone to listen to the podcast and then say she’s not taking this seriously,” Flom says. “You can’t listen to this and not pick up on her genuine passion. … I think there’s more momentum than ever since I joined the movement 25 years ago. Right now we’re at a tipping point — I think Kim should keep doing what she’s doing, and if anybody doesn’t like it, they can call me and I’ll straighten them out.”