New Reforms Bypass Dallas Inmate Sentenced to Life for First Drug Arrest

If you want to understand why the Justice Department is making the historic move to release 6,000 federal drug inmates on November 1, do not read any stories clearly intended for terrified gated-community-dwelling suburbanites, like this AP report, warning that "one inmate whose punishment was cut was described in 2012 as a 'calamity waiting to happen.'” (Gawker eviscerated the story in question shortly after, pointing out that the Feds only reduced the sentence for the "calamity waiting to happen" by 22 months, meaning that he will now be out in 2017 rather than 2019). To better understand why America should stop imprisoning people for decades for the crime of selling or buying drugs, consider this two-decade-old report by the US Sentencing Commission, which found that only 11 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants were major traffickers, while the majority of others were just low-level criminals, or research by the ACLU documenting that more than 3,000 people are serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, mainly drugs, or the many disturbing statistics about the United States' booming prison population or ... you get the picture. 

In Dallas' federal courts, few cases have illustrated the arbitrary nature of tough drug sentencing laws more effectively than the case against a woman from Terrell named Sharanda Jones. Testimony from other dealers led to the arrest of Jones in the late 90's. Too poor to afford a so-called "dope lawyer" for her jury trial, she pleaded not guilty. In 1999, a jury convicted Jones on one drug conspiracy count for buying cocaine powder in Houston and then selling the powder to a dealer in Terrell, who then converted the powder to crack. For that one count, Jones was sentenced to prison for the rest of her life, a fact that jurors were not made aware of at the time. “Life in prison? My God, that is too harsh,” one juror recently told the Washington Post. It was her first and only arrest, but because Jones refused to become an informant, like those who had testified against her, she received the harshest sentence of anyone else charged in the conspiracy case, according to a source familiar with the investigation and prosecution of Jones. "They wanted her to roll over on a then-Dallas police officer that was a friend of hers, and she refused to do it," says the source. We dug into the weak case that put Jones away for life in a cover story last year, and her sentence has also attracted attention in media outlets around the country, most recently a Washington Post feature that ran several months ago. But despite national attention to the case and a series of different prison reform initiatives recently introduced by the federal government, Jones remains in prison. "It makes no sense to me," says the source. "If anybody is being let out, she should be a person that would qualify for that."

On March 31, Obama granted sentence commutations to 22 prisoners, including Donel Marcus Clark, who was also convicted in Dallas. Like Jones, Clark grew up poor and received a lengthy sentence for his first conviction. Like Jones, he is also represented by Brittany Byrd, a Dallas corporate attorney who helps drug offenders on her own time. "We are elated at the news about Donel and hope the president continues to grant commutations to many others like Sharanda who are more than deserving to be given a second chance," Byrd said in a statement at the time.

Then, in July, Obama granted clemency to 46 more prisoners, all nonviolent drug offenders, the largest single-day clemency since the 1960s. Most recently, on October 6, the Justice Department announced a separate historic initiative to give early release to 6,000 prisoners, under reforms that have retroactively made drug sentences shorter. Department of Justice spokesman Emily Pierce declined to release a list of who those prisoners are. "We are not providing blanket lists of inmates because it raises privacy concerns," she writes. But Jones' attorney Brittany Byrd tells us in an email that none of her clients are released under that initiative. In that program, individual judges involved in the cases get to decide whether to release inmates early. 

Two years ago, Byrd sent a petition asking for clemency on Jones' behalf to President Obama. The following year, then-Attorney General Eric Holder instituted new sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenders. That program "is different than the actions by the courts" to release the 6,000 prisoners, Pierce says. The United State Attorney's Northern District of Texas spokesman Kathy Colvin has repeatedly declined to comment on Jones' case.