As It Appeared On
The American Lawyer is proud to present its inaugural South Trailblazers. The Trailblazer series is a special supplement developed by the business arm of The American Lawyer. We are proud to spotlight a handful of individuals from each practice area that are truly agents of change.
Our goal was to recognize professionals in the South who have moved the needle in the legal industry. For our purposes, we defined the South as the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Nashville Managing Partner
Sanford Heisler Sharp
Phone Number: (615) 434-7001
What was the genesis of the idea that has made you a trailblazer?
As a federal judge I was concerned with mandatory minimum sentencing, but the turning point came when I was forced to sentence a 23-year-old man to life in prison on a non-violent drug offense. I knew the sentencing hearing would be tough and that justice would not be served. What I was unprepared for was the life-changing impact the Defendant’s allocation would have on me. Rather than remain on the bench, I chose to step down and work toward criminal justice reform, and ultimately, clemency for this young man.
What sort of change has resulted from the concept?
In September 2018 I was invited to the White House to discuss clemency reform to advocate for the passage of the First Step Act. Signed into law a few months later, the FSA shortened certain mandatory minimum sentences, reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine convictions, and required the use of recidivism abatement programs. I was able to speak directly to the President on these issues and advocate on behalf of the man I sentenced to life. He was finally granted clemency and released from prison in January 2021.
What bearing will this have on the future?
Mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts people of color, must become a relic of the past. To that end, the elimination of sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine is likely to end soon and hopefully apply retroactively. “Second Look” laws, which would allow a sentencing court to review a prior sentence to determine if the length of incarceration is still warranted, will someday be the norm. But more globally, the mainstream is recognizing that our current system is unsustainable, and the ripple effect on families and communities creates a cycle of negative outcomes that are financially costly and erode our humanity.