Pubdate: Fri, 17 Jul 2015
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2015 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Sari Horwitz, reports from Fort Worth, Texas, Copyright: The
Author: Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post


Fort Worth, Texas - The Case of Sharanda Jones Is Not Unusual in a 
Country Where You Can't Be Too Tough on Drug Crime. Barack Obama Has 
Other Ideas, Though.

Prisoner 33177-077 struggles to describe the moment in 1999 when a 
federal judge sentenced her to life in prison after her conviction on 
a single cocaine offence. She was a first-time, non-violent offender. 
"I was numb," says Sharanda Jones at the Carswell women's prison in 
Fort Worth, Texas. "I was thinking about my baby. I thought it can't 
be real life in prison."

Ms Jones, 47, is one of tens of thousands of inmates who received 
harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences during the 
crack-cocaine epidemic, and whose cases are drawing new attention.

President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahomayesterday 
to promote his plan to overhaul the justice system which, as he says, 
has seen a "huge spike in incarcerations driven by nonviolent drug 
offences where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime".

Because of her role as a middleman between a cocaine buyer and 
supplier, Ms 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. Ms Jones was hit with a barrage of "enhancements".

Her licence for a concealed weapon amounted to carrying a gun "in 
furtherance"of a drug conspiracy - enhancement. When she was 
convicted on one count of seven, prosecutors said her testimony in 
her defence 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 - enhancement. By the end, 
Ms Jones's sentencing had so many enhancements that the federal judge 
had only one punishment option. She was, in effect, sentenced to die in prison.

She 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 US Sentencing Commission.

But a lingering legacy of the crack epidemic are inmates such as Ms 
Jones. About 100,000 federal inmates  nearly half  are serving time 
for drug offences, among them thousands of non-violent 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 last year, the then Attorney General Eric 
Holder  who had called mandatory minimum sentences 
"draconian"  started an initiative to grant clemency to certain 
non-violent 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 organised 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 offence today.

Ms 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 Mr Obama. Ms Jones wasn't among them.

Ms Jones's 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 
co-operate with the government for a reduced sentence. They told 
investigators that over several years, they bought about 30kg of 
powder cocaine each for about $18,000 (UKP12,000) from Ms Jones, who 
they said had purchased the cocaine from a drug dealer in Houston.

Two years later,Ms Jonesand several others were indicted by a federal 
grand jury. Ms 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.

Ms Jones had grown up poor, raised by her grandmother after her 
mother was left quadriplegic by a car crash. But Ms Jones, who 
started working when she was 14, had an entrepreneurial streak, 
opening her own hair salon and a burger joint before starting a 
Southernstyle restaurant in Dallas with a woman from Terrell who was 
a Dallas police officer. A friend told Ms Jones she could earn 
thousands more if she "got into the game".

"It was fast money," she says now. "Biggest mistake I ever made."

In 1999  after days of testimony about drug deals by people nicknamed 
"Weasel", "Spider", "Baby Jack" and "Kilo", and a dramatic moment 
when Ms Jones's quadriplegic mother was wheeled into the courtroom, 
the jury acquitted Ms 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, the US District Judge Jorge Solis 
determined that Ms Jones was responsible for the distribution of 30kg 
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 and a half years. All have 
since been released.

The judge determined that Ms 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 30kg of powder was 
equal to 13.39kg of crack cocaine. He then added 10.528kg of crack 
cocaine that the prosecutors said had been distributed in Terrell and 
was linked to Ms Jones's brother.

The judge's calculation made Ms Jones accountable for 23.92kg of 
crack. That, added to the gun and obstruction enhancements, as well 
as Ms Jones's role as an "organiser," sealed her sentence under 
federal rules that assign numbers to offences 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," Judge 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 US Bureau of Prisons for a term of life imprisonment."

The jurors who found Ms Jones guilty were never told about the life 
sentence, which came months after the trial. "Life in prison? My God, 
that is too harsh," said James 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."

Ms Jones had been a model inmate, taking dozens of classes and 
mentoring other prisoners, but no amount of good behaviour would get 
her out. The only option was clemency from the President who, while 
promising reforms, has yet to grant Ms Jones a release.

Inside Carswell's visiting room one recent afternoon, Ms 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 she visits every couple of weeks. They talk on the phone every day.

Ms Garland was eight 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."

Two years ago, Ms Garland wrote to Mr 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 
nonviolent offender is absolutely devastating."

After an hour together, the guards told them their time was up. They 
hugged tightly for the permitted 30 seconds. Ms Jones 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 learnt not to cry.
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