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This Dallas lawyer wants to free people serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses

A woman speaks into a microphone while seated on stage.
Courtesy of Kim Leeson
Brittany Barnett speaks on stage at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum about mass incarceration and American drug policies.

Brittany Barnett first learned about Sharanda Jones in 2009 from YouTube. Barnett was in law school at Southern Methodist University, researching for a paper on federal War on Drugs policies that led to long sentences for nonviolent offenses.

“A YouTube video of a woman named Sharanda Jones pops up and Sharanda was serving a life sentence for drugs in federal prison,” Barnett recalled. “She had never been arrested ever before for a traffic ticket or otherwise. It was her first felony conviction, no misdemeanor convictions. And I just remember thinking, there has to be something more to this story.”

But Jones wasn’t a cartel member, wasn’t accused of violent crime.

“Sharanda had been convicted of one single count of federal drug conspiracy,” Barnett said.

This was the start what is now Barnett’s 15-year campaign to help free people serving life in prison for nonviolent offenses and address the harms of mass incarceration. Barnett talked about the work at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum recently as part of the Rule of Law speaker series.

Jones’ story resonated with Barnett. They were both Black daughters of the rural South, Barnett said. But Barnett was in law school while Jones was 10 years into a decades-long prison sentence. Barnett’s mother had been imprisoned on drug charges. Jones was a mom with an eight-year-old when she went to prison.

“There was just something about her case that tugged at my soul,” Barnett said. “And I sent her a card. I told her I was a law student, that I knew next to nothing about criminal law, but that I wanted to help her get out of prison.”

Jones wrote back, thanked Barnett for her interest and wished her well in her studies. Barnett got the impression Jones didn’t expect much from this earnest not-yet-lawyer. But Barnett kept in touch and dug into her case.

Jones had trafficked cocaine a few times in the late 90s for two friends who were drug dealers. It was extra cash to supplement the restaurant Jones co-owned. After a police sweep, the dealers got lighter sentences because they testified against her. By the time Barnett met Jones, the dealers were already out of prison.

“She was never caught with any drugs, never in possession of large amounts of money, never on any drugs or violence, no control buys. She was convicted solely based on the testimony of her coconspirators,” Barnett said.

Jones was sentenced to 47 years, a massive sentence because the dealers turned the powder cocaine into crack. At the time, federal law penalized crack cocaine offenses 100 times more harshly than those involving powder cocaine, a legacy of a Reagan-era expansion of War on Drugs policies that flooded federal prisons with people convicted of low-level and nonviolent drug offenses.

“You could have 500 grams of powder cocaine. I could have only five grams of crack, and we would receive the same sentence,” Barnett said. “And it wasn't lost on me. Even as a law student. But I don't think is lost on many of us that in the late 80s, more affluent white people were using powder cocaine, and crack cocaine was running rampant through communities of color.”

These laws, building on drug policies launched by the Nixon Administration in part to target Black communities, according to Nixon’s domestic policy advisor.

Barnett believed she could help Jones but she didn’t know how. As she worked her way through law school and went on to launch a corporate law career, she tried to find a strategy to get Jones out. Legal reforms in 2010 and 2011 reduced crack cocaine sentences, but they weren’t retroactive.

“And very, very sadly, Sharanda Jones was still facing life without parole,” Barnett said.

A woman in an audience sitting next to three others looks at the camera.
Courtesy of Kim Leeson
Sharanda Jones was in attendance at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum on April 9, 2024, when Brittany Barnett talked about her case and their efforts to help people serving life prison sentences for federal drug crimes.

But as national attention increasingly focused on nonviolent drug offenders languishing in prison, President Obama granted Jones clemency in 2015, two years after Barnett helped her to petition.

It was 16 years after Jones had gone to prison. She’d missed her mother’s funeral, and the rest of her daughter’s childhood.

When the Obama Administration launched an initiative to use his clemency powers to help non-violent, low-level drug offenders serving long federal prison sentences related to the crack-powder disparities. But it required federal prisoners to petition, essentially relying on an army of pro-bono lawyers to do that work.

Barnett filed petitions for clemency in her spare time, on the side of a busy job at a law firm working on multi-million transactions. She also started a program helping girls stay connected with moms who are locked up in Texas state prisons called Girls Embracing Mothers, which is focused on breaking a cycle that makes children of incarcerated parents more likely to end up in jail or prison when they grow up.

In 2016, Barnett left corporate law to focus full-time on helping get people in line for clemency in the remaining months of the Obama presidency. After President Trump took office, the clemency efforts were ended.

In 2018, Barnett and Jones launched the Buried Alive Project alongside another of Barnett’s formerly incarcerated clients, Corey Jacobs. The project advocates for people serving life sentences for drugs. They’ve helped free 60 people so far.

“It is scratching concrete. It is picking locks to human cages. It is a liberation heist. And it is my life’s work,” Barnett said.

Release from prison is only part of the goal for Barnett. Economic liberation, she said, has to be the end goal because freedom doesn’t count for much if people are let out of prison but subjected to a life of poverty.

Barnett launched the Manifest Freedom Fund, which has granted mover $560,000 to formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.

Sharanda Jones was first recipient. She now has a food truck business called Fed Up.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.