Non-violent drug sentencing has left thousands of people buried alive in prison

The Buried Alive Project, with the help of SMU students, aims to eliminate life without parole sentences for those convicted of federal non-violent drug offenses.

By Sharon Grigsby
Editorial Writer

Dallas attorney Brittany K. Barnett is best known for her work representing clients pro bono in their quest to break free from disproportionate sentencing. She has won the release of 10 people, including Sharanda Jones, a Terrell woman who served more than 16 years of a life without parole sentence as a first-time nonviolent drug offender. Barnett has just launched the Buried Alive Project, aimed at eliminating life without parole for federal drug offenses. 

A lot of Americans remember the Obama administration's clemency initiative and believe that corrected out-of-proportion federal drug sentences.  What's the real story and why have you stayed involved?

Over 30,000 men and women in federal prison applied for clemency, and President Barack Obama granted clemency to 1,715 people [including Jones]. Thousands of people who are just as deserving of a second chance were left behind. Of the 185,000 people in federal prison today, 46.2 percent of them are there for drug offenses. Nearly half of the people in federal prison serving life without parole are serving this fundamental death sentence for drug offenses and 80 percent of them are people of color. . . . 

What is Southern Methodist University's role in the project?

The Buried Alive Project has its roots in work back in 2009 when I came across Sharanda's case as a law student at SMU. We began organizing officially this past fall at the SMU law school's Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center, one of our major partners.

The center provides us funding and serves as a research partner and training operation, teaching advocacy skills to pro bono lawyers and law students to help the Buried Alive Project maximize its work.

For example, 40 SMU law students have devoted more than 450 volunteer hours helping me identify and research cases of hundreds of people serving life without parole sentences handed down under federal drug laws.

And this project is also engaging students across campus. Graduate-level SMU statistics students are helping analyze 30 years of data, and English students with a focus on creative writing are assisting us with writing profile stories to humanize the narrative of those serving life without parole sentences.


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