University of Virginia School of Law alumnus John Gleeson '80, a federal district judge in Brooklyn who has drawn national attention for his opposition to harsh mandatory sentences, will receive this year's Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law.

Gleeson, who was awarded the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for his work as the lead prosecutor in the U.S. case against the Mafia boss John Gotti in 1992, has in recent years been outspoken about the need to address unduly severe mandatory sentences, championing alternatives such as drug treatment programs and pressing for resentencing in some exceptional cases.

In January, Gleeson announced that he will step down from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on March 9, after 21 years on the bench. He will become a partner at the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

"John Gleeson has been a remarkably thoughtful judge who has never lost sight of the fundamental importance of promoting justice," said Dean Paul G. Mahoney.

Sponsored jointly by UVA and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals are awarded each year to recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president, excelled and held in high regard, including law, architecture and leadership. The awards are UVA's highest external honors. This year a fourth medal, for Global Innovation, will be hosted by the Darden School of Business.

To mark the occasion, Gleeson will give a public talk at the Law School on April 13 at 10 a.m. in Caplin Pavilion.

As a district judge, Gleeson has been forthright about the effects that mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes have on communities. "We talk about numbers, but at the end of the process it's not a number that's getting the sentence," Gleeson told NPR. "It's a person, a person with a family from a community."

Gleeson helped create programs in his district aimed at reducing or eliminating prison time for nonviolent drug offenders and younger defendants. In recent years, he has joined a growing number of federal judges in arguing that certain convictions should be expunged from defendants’ records in order to allow them to return to mainstream society.

“The public safety is better served when people with criminal convictions are able to participate as productive members of society by working and paying taxes,” he wrote in granting one woman’s request to have her record expunged.

Gleeson earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University. After law school, he served as a law clerk for Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Louisville, Kentucky. From 1981 to 1985, he was a litigation associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City.

Gleeson was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York from 1985 to 1994. He served as chief of appeals, chief of special prosecutions, chief of organized crime, and chief of the Criminal Division. He won praise for his role as the lead prosecutor in the successful 1992 prosecution of Gotti, the notorious Mafia leader, on racketeering charges that included five murders. Gotti had become known as the “Teflon Don” after three previous trials had failed to result in his conviction.

Gleeson was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a U.S. District Judge on Sept. 28, 1994.

Since 1995, Gleeson has been an adjunct professor of law at New York University School of Law, where he teaches courses in complex federal investigations and sentencing. He has also taught at Brooklyn Law School. In 1994, Gleeson was the John A. Ewald, Jr., Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. 

From 1999 to 2008, Gleeson was a member of the Defender Services Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, and he served as Chair of the Committee from 2005 to 2008. He is currently a trustee of the Vera Institute of Justice, a member of the Board of Directors of the Dwight D. Opperman Institute of Judicial Administration at New York University School of Law, and a member of the American Law Institute.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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