A North Texas woman who expected to die in federal prison has been enjoying newfound freedom, thanks to a former Southern Methodist University law student and President Barack Obama.
Sharanda Jones spent years imprisoned for her role as the middle woman between cocaine dealers. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender — yet she had been sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole.
“I should have went to prison,” she told KDFW-TV (Fox 4). “I just didn’t deserve a death sentence.”
She spoke with the TV station Friday, months after the president granted her clemency in December and allowed her to walk free after nearly 17 years. Obama has tried to make commuting the sentences of inmates serving time under harsh, outdated laws a key part of his legacy.
Jones said she turned to the drug business to support her family, whose quality of life had suffered ever since her mother got into a car accident when Jones was 3.
“We just didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “That was the only thing I could think of at the time that was going fast that I could help out.”
In 1999, Jones was sentenced for her role in a drug operation that witnesses testified stretched from Dallas to Houston to Terrell, according to The Washington Post. She served time at the Carswell women’s prison in Fort Worth.
Attorney Brittany Barnett-Byrd said she first came across Jones’ case when she was an SMU law student writing a paper about disparities in sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
“At the time, crack cocaine was punished a hundred times more than powder cocaine,” Barnett-Byrd told Fox 4. “Sharanda was sentenced under the harsher penalties.”
After graduating from law school, Barnett-Byrd said, she filed a petition for clemency in 2013.
Obama finally commuted Jones’ sentence in December.
“It was a smiling moment at first,” Jones recalled, “and then it was a praising and thanking God the second.”
Since her release, Jones has become an advocate for criminal justice reform. Her Twitter bio says, “A First Arrest Shouldn’t Mean A Life Sentence … THANK YOU @POTUS for literally saving my life! #ClemencyIsJustice”
She met Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is The New Black, at the White House.
And last month, she celebrated her 49th birthday, her first since finding freedom.