Patrick Jones, 49 years old from Temple Texas, died in federal custody this weekend as one of the latest victims of the coronavirus global health crisis. By accounts from his lawyers and those who knew him, he was, at the time of his death, a compassionate man who was seeking clemency to see his son, as he grew up on the street without parents since he was a young teenager. It seems fitting that we take a moment to reflect on the circumstance that resulted in Mr. Jones’ incarceration and ultimately led to his death so that in his passing he may pass on a valuable lesson.

As a young boy, living on his own on the streets in the 1980s Patrick became involved in petty crime. His known infractions include: a string of non-violent burglaries when he was 17 years old living on the street without parents and a single arrest for delivering drugs to an undercover police officer when he was 21.

Fifteen years of no further justice system involvement later, Temple Texas police officers visited the residence of Patrick Jones to execute a warrant for a different person. They were not looking for Patrick Jones and had no warrant to search his residence.  Mr. Jones gave the police permission to enter his home, where the officers found approximately 20 grams of crack cocaine and approximately 20 grams of powder cocaine according to Prosecutors. Patrick Jones was arrested and, because his residence was within 1,000 feet of a school, was charged with the enhanced crime of possession with the intent to distribute. At his trial, based on the testimony of a witness who received a favorable plea arrangement, he was convicted of selling over 400 grams of crack cocaine even though his arrest was for possession. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing rules, Patrick Jones was sentenced to 30 years in prison by the Federal Court.

Patrick was denied clemency due to his brush with the law when he was a troubled teen. Fast forward a few more years and mardi gras partiers in New Orleans exacerbate the spread of an infectious disease during a global pandemic, someone visits the federal prison that has Patrick locked away and Patrick’s thirty-year sentence turns into a death sentence.

Unfortunately, Patrick Jones’ situation is not unique. There are thousands of persons serving life sentences for property or non-violent crimes. Moreover, many question whether a Federal Court should even have jurisdiction to hear a drug case since US District Courts are limited  limited to only a few subjects (counterfeiting, piracy, crimes on the high seas, offenses against the laws of nations, and treason). Patrick Jones likely should never have been behind bars to begin with. Drug offenses, not involving force or fraud can be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.

See more about my views on criminal justice reform here.