From a first arrest to a life sentence
Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison
In Fort Worth
Sharanda Jones — prisoner 33177-077 — struggled to describe the moment in 1999 when a federal judge sentenced her to life in prison after her conviction on a single cocaine offense.
She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.
UNWINDING THE DRUG WAR: This story is the third in a continuing series about the legacy of the war on drugs and efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population.
Click to read Part I: The painful price of aging in prison
Click to read Part II: Against his better judgment
Click to read Part IV: Unlikely allies for sentencing reform
Click to read Part V: Out of prison, slow steps to freedom
Click to read Part VI: In Calif., the unintended effects of leniency
Click to read Part VII: Softening sentences, losing leverage
Click to read Part VIII: Struggling to fix a ‘broken’ system
“I was numb,” Jones said in an interview at the Carswell women’s prison here. “I was thinking about my baby. I thought it can’t be real life in prison.”
Jones, who will turn 48 next week, is one of tens of thousands of inmates who received harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during the crack-cocaine epidemic, and whose cases are drawing new attention.
President Obama is visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma Thursday to promote his plan to overhaul the criminal justice system, saying Wednesday, “this huge spike in incarcerations is also driven by nonviolent drug offenses where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime.”
Video: A mother and daughter separated by a life sentence
Clenesha Garland is in her own kind of prison, living a life without her mother. (Nicki DeMarco, Nikki Kahn and Sari Horwitz)
Because of her role as a middle woman between a cocaine buyer and supplier, Jones was accused of being part of a “drug conspiracy” and should have known that the powder would be converted to crack — triggering a greater penalty.
Her sentence was then made even more severe with a punishment tool introduced at the height of the drug war that allowed judges in certain cases to “enhance” sentences — or make them longer.
Jones was hit with a barrage of “enhancements.”
Her license for a concealed weapon amounted to carrying a gun “in furtherance of a drug conspiracy.”
When she was convicted on one count of seven, prosecutors said her testimony in her defense had been false and therefore an “obstruction of justice.”
Although she was neither the supplier nor the buyer, prosecutors described her as a leader in a drug ring.
By the end, Jones’s sentencing had so many that the federal judge had only one punishment option. With no possibility of parole in the federal system, she was, in effect, sentenced to die in prison.
Federal Inmates serving time for drug offenses, which represents 48.6 percent of that population.
Inmates who have applied for clemency since the spring of 2014.
Inmates who have been freed, including 46 on Monday.
Source: Department of Justice
Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today. Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment. In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
But a lingering legacy of the crack epidemic are inmates such as Jones. About 100,000 federal inmates — or nearly half — are serving time for drug offenses, among them thousands of nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Most are poor, and four in five are African American or Hispanic.
In the spring of 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who had called mandatory minimum sentences “draconian” — started an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. They had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history, and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.
Jones applied. It has been a halting process, however. Only 89 prisoners of the more than 35,000 who have filed applications have been freed. They include 46 inmates who were granted clemency on Monday by Obama.
Jones wasn’t among them.
''I take full responsibility for my actions and know that I deserve to be punished . . . but, for the rest of my life for my first-ever arrest and conviction?'' Sharanda Jones wrote in a letter to President Obama that accompanied her petition for clemency.
Her case began in November 1997 when the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department conducted a large drug sweep in the city of Terrell, about 30 miles east of Dallas, netting more than 100 people, all of them black.
Among those arrested was Julie Franklin and her husband, Keith “Baby Jack” Jackson, who agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government for a reduced sentence. They told investigators that over several years, they bought about 30 kilograms of powder cocaine, each for about $18,000, from Jones, who they said had purchased the cocaine from a drug dealer in Houston.
Two years later, Jones and several others were indicted by a federal grand jury. Jones was charged with six counts of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and aiding and abetting, and one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
Clenesha Garland was 8 when her mother, Sharanda Jones, was imprisoned. She remembers being confused when her mother seemed to vanish.
Jones had grown up poor, raised by her grandmother after her mother was left quadriplegic by a car crash. But Jones, who started working when she was 14, had an entrepreneurial streak, opening her own hair salon and a burger joint before starting a Southern-style restaurant in Dallas with a woman from Terrell who was a Dallas police officer.
A friend told Jones she could earn thousands more if she “got into the game.”
“It was fast money,” she says now. “Biggest mistake I ever made.”
During a six-day trial in Dallas in August 1999, Franklin and Jackson — the cooperating couple arrested in Terrell — testified that they drove with Jones several times from Dallas to Houston where they would give Jones money and she would buy powder cocaine for them from her drug supplier.
Joseph Antoine III, who also cooperated with the government in exchange for a lower sentence, testified that he was the person in Houston who sold kilograms of cocaine to Jones.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William C. McMurrey argued to the jury that Jones was involved in selling crack in Terrell, along with her brother, sister and mother. Investigators pressed Jones to implicate her business partner, the Dallas police officer, saying it could help reduce her sentence. The officer testified and said she was not involved. And Jones also said the officer had nothing to do with drugs. The officer, who is still with the department, declined to be interviewed.
McMurrey said Jones also turned down a plea deal, but Jones and her current attorney said there was never a formal offer that specified how much time she would serve.
On Aug. 26, 1999 — after days of testimony about drug deals by people nicknamed “Weasel,” “Spider,” “Baby Jack” and “Kilo,” and a dramatic moment when Jones’s quadriplegic mother was wheeled into the courtroom — the jury acquitted Jones of all six charges of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and aiding and abetting. But they found her guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
Although no drugs were ever found, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis determined that Jones was responsible for the distribution of 30 kilograms of cocaine. He arrived at that number based on the testimony of the co-conspirators — the couple who received sentences of seven and eight years, and the Houston dealer, who got 19 1/2 years.
All have since been released.
The judge determined that Jones knew or should have known that the powder was going to be “rocked up” — or converted to crack. Using a government formula, the prosecutor said that the 30 kilograms of powder was equal to 13.39 kilograms of crack cocaine.
He then added 10.528 kilograms of crack cocaine that the prosecutors said had been distributed in Terrell and was linked to Jones’s brother. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the conviction, but said there was “barely” any evidence of Jones’s connection to the crack distributed in Terrell.)
The judge’s calculation made Jones accountable for 23.92 kilograms of crack. That, added to the gun and obstruction enhancements, as well as Jones’s role as an “organizer,” sealed her sentence under federal rules that assign numbers to offenses and enhancements. The final number — 46 — dictated the sentence, leaving the judge no discretion.
“Under the guidelines, that sets a life sentence, mandatory life sentence,” Solis said at a hearing in November 1999. “So, Ms. Jones, it will be the judgment of the court that you be sentenced to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a term of life imprisonment.”
Solis declined to be interviewed. Said McMurrey: “In light of the law and the guidelines and what the court heard during the trial, I know Judge Solis followed the law. He’s a very fair man.”
Ronald Weich, who was a special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission during the late 1980s, said that mandatory minimum sentences and their enhancements were all about math, not about people.
“These laws forced judges to look at their calculators instead of into the eyes of the defendants they were sentencing,” said Weich, now the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law. “They weren’t allowed to ask, ‘How did they get to this point in their lives?’ and ‘Who were they going to be in five or 20 years?’ ”
The sentencing scheme that sent Jones to prison has been widely denounced by lawmakers from both political parties. And sentences have been greatly reduced for drug offenses. But the differing approaches over time have led to striking disparities.
One illustration: The Justice Department announced last month that one of Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers and a senior paramilitary leader will serve about 15 years in prison for leading an international drug trafficking conspiracy that imported more than 100,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
The jurors who found Jones guilty were never told about the life sentence, which came months after the trial. Several of them, when contacted by The Washington Post, were dismayed.
“Life in prison? My God, that is too harsh,” said James J. Siwinski, a retired worker for a glass company. “That is too severe. There’s people killing people and getting less time than that. She wasn’t an angel. But enough is enough already.”
Lawyer Brittany K. Byrd goes through boxes filled with court documents and the clemency petition she filed for Sharanda Jones with the Justice Department and the White House. ''I'm not going to give up. I can't give up,'' Byrd says.
Brittany K. Byrd was in her second year of law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2009 when she heard about Jones. She was taking Critical Race Theory, a seminar class that analyzed the intersection of race and the law. For her final paper, Byrd wanted to write about the disparity between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine sentences and the disparate effect on African Americans and Hispanics, but she needed real cases to humanize her argument.
During her research, Byrd found that Jones’s mother was later sentenced to 17 years in a separate trial for her role in drug dealing in Terrell. The quadriplegic woman died after 12 years behind bars, and Jones was not allowed to attend her funeral.
“I wanted to show the class and my professor a human face behind the numbers and show the sacrifice of human capital for the war on drugs,” Byrd said.
After she turned in her paper, Byrd couldn’t stop thinking about Jones. “Her case did not allow me to sleep,” she said. “It just tugged at my soul.” She sent a card to Jones in prison, telling her that she was a law student and she wanted to try to help.
“She wrote me back and it was really a generic type of letter,” Byrd said. “It was more like, ‘Been there, heard that before and no one’s really helped me.’ ”
Brittany K. Byrd, left, Sharanda Jones’s clemency attorney, admires a handmade 24th-birthday card that Jones sent to her daughter, Clenesha Garland, 24. Byrd came across Jones's case as a law school student in 2009 and has spent years working pro bono to try to get President Obama to grant Jones clemency.
Jones had been a model inmate, taking dozens of classes and mentoring other prisoners, but no amount of good behavior would get her out. The only option was clemency from the president.
By November 2013, Byrd was at a private law firm in Dallas and also running an organization for inmates and their daughters. Working pro bono, she filed a clemency petition for Jones with the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney and the White House counsel and included a petition signed by thousands, letters of support from local churches and a job offer for Jones.
“There is no doubt that Sharanda’s crime harmed society,” Byrd wrote in a 200-page petition. “However, there is also no doubt that she has been hurt back and paid her debt to society by serving the past 14 years of her life in prison as a first-time nonviolent offender and being away from her one and only child.”
Byrd received no response, but more than a year later the Obama administration began its clemency initiative. Jones appeared to meet the criteria.
“I got really excited,” Byrd said. She filed a supplemental petition to her original application that included a letter from Jones to Obama.
“I began dealing drugs out of desperation to be able to sufficiently support myself and my family,” Jones wrote. “I now understand to the fullest level the destruction caused by drugs. I take full responsibility for my actions and know that I deserve to be punished . . . but for the rest of my life for my first ever arrest and conviction? . . . My deepest sorrow is being separated from my only child, Clenesha.”
Byrd heard nothing for months. In late March, she received a phone call from the pardon attorney’s office. Obama had granted clemency to 22 inmates, including another of Byrd’s clients, a young man who had served 22 years for a nonviolent drug offense. She was ecstatic to call the prison and tell him.
But she had one question.
“What about Sharanda Jones?” she asked. The official on the other end of the line said she didn’t know anything about Jones.
“It was a bittersweet day,” Byrd recalled. “I was elated. But I just kept thinking about Sharanda and how she would feel when she saw her name wasn’t on that list.”
Nor did it appear on the new list released Monday by Obama.
''She’s the light of my life,'' Clenesha Garland said during a recent visit with her mother at Carswell federal prison. ''She’s such a good person, and she’s stuck in this place where she doesn’t belong.''
Inside Carswell’s visiting room one recent afternoon, Jones opened the tattered blue Bible she brought in with her 16 years ago and turned to her daughter, Clenesha Garland. She gently pushed a strand of hair off her daughter’s forehead. They read the Bible together when Garland visits every couple of weeks. They talk on the phone every day.
This sterile space — a room of 64 mauve-colored chairs, a few vending machines, a miniature table, chairs for toddlers and a big clock on the wall — has been the weekly aperture through which Jones has seen her daughter grow.
Inside Carswell federal prison for women, Sharanda Jones, prisoner 33177-077, marks ''The Lord’s Prayer,'' her favorite passage, in her Bible.
Garland was 8 when her mother was imprisoned. She remembers being confused when her mother seemed to vanish.
“Is she dead?” she asked her father after moving to his house.
“No, she’s in a place like a college,” he said. “We’ll go see her. But not for a while.”
Garland was 18 before she realized that her mother had a life sentence.
“My world as I knew it was shattered,” she said in a recent interview.
When she graduated high school, Garland did not want to walk across the stage without her mother in the audience. She doesn’t like to travel outside of Texas, because she wants to remain close to the prison.
“I want you to live your life,” Jones said.
“I can’t live my life when you’re still in here,” Garland replied. “I’m worried all the time about how they are treating you. I’ll start living when you get out.”
Garland puts her hand on her mother’s shoulder and softly murmurs, “Mama.”
Two years ago, Garland wrote to Obama, pleading for her mother’s release. “Being without my mother for over 14 years of my life has been extremely difficult,” she wrote. “But the thought she is set to spend the rest of her life in prison as a first-time non-violent offender is absolutely devastating.”
After an hour together, the guards told them their time was up. They hugged tightly for the permitted 30 seconds.
Garland walked past the razor wire to the front lobby where she gave her badge to a guard, as she had hundreds of times before. She passed her hand under a light where an officer checked to make sure it had a security stamp. The drive back to Dallas took about 30 minutes. She cried most of the way.
Jones left the visiting room and entered a side room where a guard was waiting, as she does after every visit. She took off her tan prison uniform, her brown T-shirt, her bra and her underwear, and waited for the guard to search every part of her body.
She showed no emotion. After 16 years, she has learned not to cry.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
''I’ve been going through this for so long,'' Clenesha Garland said of her mother’s imprisonment. ''It’s like a pain you can’t explain.''