Sharanda Jones is currently serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole at Carswell Federal Prison in Texas. Life without the possibility of parole is the second-harshest sentence our justice system can mete out, short only of the death penalty, and that not by much. What, you might ask yourself, did Sharanda Jones do to merit this sentence?
She was convicted of a single, non-violent drug offense involving crack cocaine. This conviction stemmed from her first ever arrest, and she was not even caught with crack in her possession.
If the above two paragraphs do not shock you, then you haven’t spent enough time in the criminal justice system to know how often violent crimes – including intentional homicides – are not punished with life sentences, much less life without parole. It is actually difficult, in many state court systems in particular, to get sentenced to LWP, even for repeat violent offender.
The fact that Sharanda Jones received this sentence for what amounts to being a drug mule is indicative of the unthinking and senseless drug sentencing policy that infected this country for far too long and which has resulted in a gradually worsening over-incarceration problem in the United States, which costs American taxpayers billions of dollars a year.
The basic facts of Sharanda’s arrest and conviction are set forth in this Washington Post story published in July. Essentially, Sharanda was convicted based on the testimony of two government informants who themselves were facing draconian drug sentences. The thrust of their testimony was that they had, over the course of several years, received several shipments of crack cocaine from Sharanda, who according to their understanding had brought the cocaine up from Houston to Terrell (northeast Dallas metro area) for them. There was no allegation that Sharanda had ever committed a violent act, and she was not ever caught with any amount of crack in her possession. By the uncontested testimony at trial, Sharanda did not supply the crack herself or distribute it, but rather acted as a conduit to transfer it from Houston to Terrell.
Sharanda was initially charged with seven criminal counts, and pled not guilty to all seven. She testified in her own defense and was ultimately acquitted on six of the seven counts. However, at the sentencing phase, prosecutors took the opportunity to pursue a despicable and un-American tactic all too common in our criminal justice system: they sought at sentencing to punish Sharanda for insisting on her right to trial by seeking “sentencing enhancements” – many of which essentially constitute separate crimes (e.g., obstruction of justice) but which of course prosecutors weren’t required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at this phase of the trial.
For instance, among other enhancements, Sharanda’s sentence was enhanced for carrying a gun “in furtherance of a drug conspiracy,” based simply on the fact that she had a legal license to carry a firearm in Texas. There was no testimony at trial or at any other time that she ever used her gun or even brandished or displayed it to anyone at any time. Additionally, although Sharanda was acquitted on six of the seven counts against her, her testimony in her own defense was declared at sentencing to have been false and therefore an “obstruction of justice.”
At the end of the day, prosecutors successfully placed Sharanda Jones behind bars for the rest of her natural life after her first arrest, for a nonviolent crime, in no small part because she insisted on defending herself at trial instead of taking a plea bargain that itself involved a lengthy prison sentence.
Sharanda’s case represents a small drop in an increasingly large bucket that threatens all of society with its increasing weight. Per the Bureau of Prisons, their budget has steadily grown since 1980 at an inflation-adjusted average of over $130 million per year. Even after adjusting for inflation, the Federal Bureau of Prison’s budget has grown by almost 700% since 1980, which does not even account for the fact that, by their own admission, they are dangerously overcrowded and unable to properly serve the current prison population, much less its expected growth in future years. Each year that the government keeps Sharanda Jones – who has already spent 18 years behind bars – locked up costs taxpayers about $28,000.
Given an average expected life span, the Federal drug sentencing regime put taxpayers on the hook for about $1.7 million in present-value dollars for the privilege of keeping a non-violent criminal behind bars for the rest of her natural life, and for discouraging others in Sharanda’s place from making the mistake of forcing them to go to trial and prove their case.
Of course, the financial toll pales in comparison to the human toll of Sharanda’s story, and so many others like hers. Sharanda Jones is not just a number or a dollar figure. She is a human being with a family (including a daughter) and friendships who has been essentially ripped from society forever. Society, through its criminal justice system, has declared that Sharanda Jones is beyond saving; that no hope exists or ever will exist that she can be a productive member of society, that the crime of drug muling is so heinous that she must never be allowed to see the light of day, in spite of the numerous murderers, rapists, and thieves who are deemed fit for rehabilitation and a second chance.
I think everyone, including Sharanda herself, would concede that she deserved to serve some amount of prison time for her crime; but there has to come a point where enough is enough, and where stories like Sharanda’s shock our conscience as a society and we allow some amount of reason to creep back into our criminal justice system.
Thankfully, some semblance of sanity has re-asserted itself over our federal sentencing regime and under the current regime, offenders like Sharanda Jones are extraordinarily unlikely to receive such a sentence. But too many are like Sharanda, languishing behind bars for ludicrous amounts of time under the weight of sentences passed during the middle of the crackdown on crack frenzy. Something is desperately wrong when our prisons cannot hold repeat violent offenders because it is too full of nonviolent drug offenders who are there on mandatory sentences.
For Sharanda, there are essentially two remaining options. The first lies in executive clemency and pardon – which President Obama already passed on extending to Sharanda once. Maybe Obama isn’t interested in anything he might read at RedState but his time in office is short and hopefully his successor might be more amenable to suggestions from voters on this side of the aisle. The second, equally unlikely is a Congressional solution that retroactively allows for judicial reconsideration of nonviolent drug sentences where none currently exists. Such a solution, especially as part of broader criminal justice reform like that championed by Texas under Rick Perry, could help both reduce federal prison population while actually reducing violent crime.
Until a day comes where one of these becomes a more politically palatable solution, all Sharanda Jones can do is pray that someday, someone in a position of authority will determine that she has been punished enough, and that she should be given the second chance that we all deep down believe that we deserve for our mistakes.