A North Texas woman sentenced to life in prison for drug charges is now a free woman, thanks to President Obama. But some wonder if she was punished too severely considering she was a first time offender.
For 16 years and 9 months, Sharanda Jones sat in a federal prison.
“Those years was really dark for me because I left an 8-year-old daughter behind, and that was the most heartbreaking thing out of it all,” said Jones.
Jones said she was the middle person between two drug dealers and would travel to get cocaine powder for the dealers. She had never been arrested until 1999 when she was charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
“At the age of 3, my mom was in an auto accident. Our life was really downhill after that. We just didn’t have a lot of money,” Jones explained. “That was the only thing I could think of at the time that was going fast that I could help out.”
She was sentenced under federal guidelines to life in prison with no parole, what she considered the same as a death sentence.
“Thank God Brittany came into my life, and she was a light for me and became my voice,” Jones said.
Brittany Barnett-Byrd was then a student at SMU. She said she randomly came across Jones’ case when she was in law school writing a paper about the disparities in crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing
“At the time, crack cocaine was punished a hundred times more than powder cocaine,” Barnett-Byrd explained. “Sharanda was sentenced under the harsher penalties.”
Former federal judge Joe Kendall said the idea was to take disparity out of prison sentencing.
“The judge was wedded in the 90s to the federal sentencing guidelines,” he explained.
Kendall was appointed to the federal bench by George Bush in 1994 and to the sentencing commission by Bill Clinton in 1999, but in no way is connected to jones.
“The pendulum swung so far that the guidelines became draconian,” said Jones. “And now the pendulum is swinging back.”
“I filed the petition in November 2013,” said Barnett-Byrd. “December 2015, we received the elating news that Sharanda Jones was going to be set free.”
“It was a smiling moment at first, and then it was a praising and thanking God the second,” said Jones.
But Jones agrees she should have goon to prison for dealing in illegal drugs.
“I should have went to prison,” Jones said. “I just didn’t deserve a death sentence.”
Barnett-Byrd has secured clemency now for three people and a fourth in the pipeline. She says there are 2,000 other people in federal prison like Jones. And she's left her corporate attorney job to pursue criminal justice reform
“Our system is broken,” said Barnett-Byrd. “And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”