So you're a judge, and Sharanda P. Jones comes before you for sentencing for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
She's a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.
There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What's your sentence?
You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense.
At a time when the United States has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without the possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.
Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here's what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former FBI informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.”
But federal law on mandatory minimums left Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don't agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”
Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:
• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a 2-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”