How One Woman Got a Life Sentence for a First Crack Cocaine Offense

© The Washington Post Unwinding the Drug War
© The Washington Post Unwinding the Drug War

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.” Enhancement.

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.” Enhancement.

Although she was neither the supplier nor the buyer, prosecutors described her as a leader in a drug ring. Enhancement.

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.

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 are giving 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 serving life sentences 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.

Click here to read more

Source: The Washington Post | Sari Horwitz and Nikki Kahn

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