It was December 21, 2020, and things were finally looking up for Jason Norman. The 45-year-old inmate was settling in at his new home in the Algoa Correctional Center, a minimum-security state prison on the outskirts of the capital in Jefferson City.
His recent move from the state prison in Boonville meant more than a change in scenery: He'd been selected to join the prestigious "inmate trustees" who worked in the governor's official residence, an opulent Victorian mansion overlooking the Missouri River, just a few minutes' drive from the prison. Being a trustee involved a rigorous selection process, and if chosen, Norman would earn $2 an hour.
Norman had come a long way since his 2003 arrest. Now, more than seventeen years into a twenty-year sentence for drug trafficking, he'd earned a chance at a kind of freedom, if only within the mansion's kitchen or as a maintenance worker on its grounds.
Arriving in Algoa in November, Norman was told to wait while prison officials made their final review of the incoming trustees. Four days before Christmas, he was still waiting.
"I was there 30 days," he recalls, "and that day I was in my cell, locked down for the count, and an officer came to my door."
The guard told him that he was needed "upstairs" in the prison's probation office. It was a strange request: Norman wasn't eligible for parole, the result of a uniquely harsh Missouri sentencing law that targets drug offenders with prior felonies.
The meeting with the parole officer lasted only minutes. When Norman left the office, he knew one thing: He wasn't going to be working in the governor's mansion.
Governor Mike Parson had gotten to him first. That day, while Norman was killing time in his prison cell, Parson was signing his commutation papers. One week later, Norman was released from prison on a modified house arrest, technically a "partial commutation" that allows him to serve the rest of his sentence as he works to rebuild his life in the small town of Marshall. His movements are monitored by a GPS device on his ankle. He spends his days driving a tow truck and his nights at home.
It may not be a mansion, but, he notes, "It ain't prison."
"I thought it was a done deal, that I'd have to serve out the rest of my time," he adds. He points out the obvious, that without Parson's action, he was facing at least two more years of prison before he could qualify for conditional release. Those were years he couldn't afford to lose. As he enters middle age, he's already spent most of his adult life in prison.
"I'm just thankful," he says. "I'm very grateful that the governor chose me. It's like hitting the lottery."
Norman wasn't the only inmate surprised on December 21. That same day, Parson ordered commutations for two other drug offenders, both trapped in long sentences through the same "no parole" sentencing enhancement that affected Norman.
But the issue is much bigger than three cases. According to recent prison records, Norman is just one of more than 200 drug offenders serving no-parole sentences under an unusual state drug law that for decades has skyrocketed sentences and barred legal avenues for early release.
For those still in prison, freedom isn't like a lottery. Their odds remain static, frozen at zero.
That's not true for most Missouri prisoners. The vast majority of inmates — including prior offenders and felons — are eligible for parole after serving about 25 to 50 percent of their sentence. In fact, of the roughly 84,000 people under the oversight of the Missouri Department of Corrections, only 24,000 are in prisons. The remaining 60,000 people, all convicted criminals, are on probation and parole, serving their sentences as productive, if restricted, members of society while saving the state money on prison costs.
And yet hundreds of Missouri drug offenders are serving sentences so long that their punishments rival those of murderers. The cause is a criminal statute defining "prior and persistent drug offenders," a sentencing law so extreme that in 2014 a bipartisan group of lawmakers successfully repealed it — but only partially. The repeal, which went into effect January 1, 2017, doesn't cover drug offenders already convicted under the old "prior and persistent" sentencing laws.
Since 2013, in multiple investigations and cover stories, the Riverfront Times has documented the devastating impact and strange aftermath of this particular drug law, revealing the stories about the prosecutors who wielded it, the offenders sentenced by it and the people who have devoted years to fighting its hold.
What remains true in 2021 is that the repeal left out those most affected by the massive prison sentences, creating a segment of Missouri's prison population for whom punishment is set in stone.
The impasse has left inmates and their families struggling to find hope. As it turns out, it's a problem that Missouri's governor can fix with the flick of a pen.
In his December 21 announcement, Governor Parson, a former sheriff, managed to invoke the generosity of the holiday season while still appearing to draw a hard line on crime.
"This is the time of year for forgiveness," the statement noted. "There must be serious consequences for criminal behavior, but when individuals demonstrate a changed lifestyle and a commitment to abandoning the ways of their past, they should be able to redeem themselves in the eyes of the law."
Parson remarked on his decision to commute "three prior drug offenders," noting that the law that made them parole-ineligible had been repealed. The "limited commutation" documents he signed ordered them restricted to house arrest, subject "to any terms and conditions imposed by the Parole Board."
Buried among more than 3,600 clemency applicants, it's not clear why these three cases wound up on Parson's desk. And while the governor's office did not provide details on the selection process, it's notable that two cases, including Norman's, were represented by attorney Kent Gipson. Gipson tells the RFT he submitted a list of more than a dozen names to the governor's chief legal counsel in early December, highlighting "egregious cases where nonviolent people got excessive sentences."
Gipson suggests that the selection may have had something to do with the three inmates' history of rehabilitation; all three provided long resumes of treatment and education programs, along with "spotless disciplinary records."
"I think that might have been it," he offers. "It was like picking the head of the class."
Whatever the process, Parson is starting to make his priorities known. After being appointed governor in 2018, he inherited thousands of unaddressed applications for clemency. Now, three years into his administration, he's used the commutation power of his office on a total of seven cases.
Parson's selections show focus. Including Norman, six of the governor's commutations involved inmates sentenced under the same draconian drug law.
Before December, Parson had issued just one commutation, awarding former drug dealer Dimetrious Woods a "partial commutation" that prevented him from being sent back to prison. Woods, the subject of a March 2020 RFT cover story, had been "erroneously released" on parole in 2018 after he successfully challenged his parole status, arguing in court that the repeal of the old "prior and persistent" sentencing law now gave him the right to appear before a parole board.
Then things got messy. At first, a circuit judge agreed with Woods, ordering his release, but the same judge went on to reject identical arguments filed by drug offenders who tried to replicate Woods' success. Into this mess came Josh Hawley, who was the state attorney general at the time before being elected to the U.S. Senate. Hawley insisted that everyone involved belonged in prison. That included Woods, who had used his two years of "erroneous" freedom to start a window-tinting business and food truck in Columbia.
The case eventually went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which sided with the attorney general: The 2017 repeal of the "prior and persistent drug offender" statute was not retroactive. For hundreds of inmates, parole remained out of reach.
That's when Parson stepped in. In April 2020, Woods stood in the governor's office in Jefferson City and watched Parson sign his commutation, which effectively saved Woods from being sent back to prison to serve the remaining twelve years of a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking.
What Parson didn't announce at the time, and which the governor's office only now confirms, was that Woods wasn't the only prior drug offender Parson saved from going back to prison in the spring of 2020.
As noted in later appeals, Parson quietly commuted the sentences of two additional inmates, Berry Livingston and Kevin Riley, both convicted drug traffickers who had independently used Woods' argument to gain parole in 2018. In 2020, when Missouri wanted to drag them back to prison along with Woods, Parson intervened.
James Norman had tried the same tactic. Years before his transfer to Algoa, he and Woods shared a housing block in the Jefferson City Correctional Center. They'd bonded over their shared predicament, trapped by Missouri's unyielding drug laws. After watching Woods win early release, Norman had filed his own petition to restore parole eligibility .
But he was too late. The window had already closed.
"They gave me an immediate 'out' date, within 30 days," Norman recalls. "I'd already switched my mindset to going home, and two days before my release, the attorney general stopped it."
"That was horrible," he adds.
And if not for Parson, it's a horror that Norman would still be living in the Algoa Correctional Center. Asked what he'd tell the governor today, Norman says he would thank Parson "for giving me a chance to start my life again."
But there's another thing Norman wishes he could bring up to the man who saved him: "Please, don't stop at me."
You don't need to live in a governor's mansion to appreciate the difference between the comfort of your home and the grim, restrictive existence of prison. But inside prison walls, the difference between those who have access to early release through parole, and those who don't, is no less devastating.
As of February 2020, data provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows 233 drug offenders serving no-parole sentences in state prisons. The details of these cases range widely across substance and quantity, from homemade meth labs stashed in duffel bags to a few grams of crack to pounds of cocaine.
The 2020 count is substantially higher than the 140 cases first reported in a 2016 RFT investigation into Missouri's harsh sentencing laws. The 2020 data, obtained through an expanded Sunshine request, reveals the most complete picture of the law's reach so far: Along with cases involving trafficking and possession, it added dozens of cases where prosecutors used charges for distributing drugs in public housing or near schools to invoke the punishments reserved for prior offenders.
On analysis, it's impossible to say whether every one of the 233 cases contained in the new dataset is a nonviolent offender. The records include Pierre Davis, sentenced in 1992 for a no-parole drug charge for distributing near a school — but the reason Davis is still in prison in 2021 isn't because of the drug charge. It's because he was convicted on multiple counts of murder and arson he committed in 1993.
But for years, attorneys, reporters and criminal justice activists have highlighted numerous cases of nonviolent drug offenders serving the equivalent of killers' sentences, all because they had been caught up in addiction or small-scale drug trade.
Take the case of Darrell Harris. On October 31, 2001, the Kansas native fell asleep at the wheel and ramped his pickup truck off a highway median in Platte County near Kansas City. When police arrived, they discovered a variety of drugs, some packaged in baggies, including fourteen ounces of marijuana, seven ounces of methamphetamine and 25 grams of crack.
At a 2003 bench trial, Harris claimed the substances were for personal use. The judge found him guilty and sentenced him on separate counts for each: Fifteen years for the meth, fifteen for the marijuana and twelve years for the crack.
The sentences added up to 42 years. Harris was 42 years old. He'd be an octogenarian by the time he could qualify for release.
"I remember hearing the judge tell him, 'I'm going to give you day for day,'" Harris' daughter Reanna says. "And then he handed down the consecutive sentences."
Seventeen years later, just before Christmas 2020, Harris' was among the commutations signed by Governor Parson. In an interview in Harris' attorney's office last month, the former inmate acknowledges that he had been using drugs "quite a bit" at the time of his arrest, but says he got sober before his sentencing.
He has a lot to catch up on. Since his release, he's obtained a commercial trucking license and attempted to reconnect with his family, a challenge during a pandemic.
"I had four grandkids when I went in," he points out. "I came out with twelve."
In Missouri, a "life" term is defined as 30 years, and if one searches the criminal statutes for "life without the possibility of parole," it appears listed as punishment for first-degree murder. Harris' case, in which a prosecutor stacked multiple charges for the same incident, demonstrates how Missouri's legal system enabled the transformation of lesser drug charges into a 42-year, in-prison death penalty.
Harris isn't the only offender to serve an effective life term solely on drug charges. But it's worth noting here that being sentenced as a "prior and persistent" drug offender isn't just a matter of parole. In practice, the law behaves like a web of legal triggers tucked into multiple criminal statutes. Judged by its impact, it seems almost tailor-made to create extreme sentences.
It starts with the prior drug felonies. If a prosecutor can show a defendant was convicted of two previous drug crimes, of any sort, they can upgrade any new lower-level charges to Class A felonies — mandating a sentence from ten years up to life in prison, without parole.
Prosecutors also enjoy an expansive scope for the definition of "prior." They can cite any old felony charges no matter how distant in a person's past, whether they had been busted carrying a joint or manufacturing meth.
These various enhancements gave prosecutors powerful leverage while negotiating plea deals — defendants had good reason to avoid a trial where they could be slapped with a "prior and persistent" designation.
Attorney Michael Reid, who represented Harris on an unsuccessful motion to reconsider the lengthy sentence, points out that sentencing patterns can vary widely between counties and regions.
"It's greatly discretionary," Reid says. "The frustrating thing is you've got some prosecutors who get it, who say, 'This is ridiculous.' And then you get others who say, 'No. This is it. We want our pound of flesh.'"
And how much flesh, precisely, is enough to satisfy the appetite of Missouri's drug laws? The results are all over the place. In 2014, RFT staff writer Ray Downs reported on the cases of drug offenders Lewis Grant and Michael Mayo. In separate cases, each man was convicted for possessing less than three grams of crack cocaine. Grant was sentenced to ten years. Mayo, who had also been busted with a tiny amount of weed, got twenty.
In 2016, an RFT cover story opened with the case of Robert Franklin, sentenced to 22 years for transporting one pound of marijuana. The story concluded with the case of Dimetrious Woods, who had been sentenced to 25 years after being busted with nearly 20 pounds of cocaine in his trunk.
It's not just the disparate sentences that distinguish Missouri's "prior and persistent" offender law. When Downs first began reporting on the cases for the RFT, the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed that Missouri had done something no other state had attempted, creating "a separate persistent felony law just for drug offenses that ratchets up the extreme sentences more quickly than the regular persistent felony law."
The results are prison sentences that double and triple the average punishments for most inmates in Missouri. Data from the Missouri Department of Corrections "offender profile" report shows just how far off the chart a 42-year drug sentence really is — or, for that matter, a ten-year sentence.
No other class of prisoner even gets close. In 2020, data show 5,787 offenders leaving Missouri prison on "first release" after their initial conviction, with parole accounting for 85 percent of all releases. The average parolee spent 3.5 years in prison and served 52 percent of their sentence. Among them were 743 parolees who had entered prison convicted of violent felonies (a category that excludes drug offenses), and who were approved for release after serving an average of just nine years.
In fact, in terms of average time served before release, the only class of crime to approach the ten-year minimum served by "prior and persistent" drug offenders are offenders convicted of sex and child abuse — but even then, Missouri released 315 of them in 2020, with each serving just over ten years, on average.
With the exception of convicted murderers, multi-decade prison terms are outliers in Missouri, even for offenders convicted of sex crimes and assaults. This is not the case for the more than 200 drug offenders locked into no-parole sentences. They face a separate landscape, a place where time is measured in decades and a prison sentence is an unbroken line.
In 2013, the RFT's Downs interviewed one of the fathers of Missouri's harshest drug law.
Harold Caskey, a former Democratic state senator from Butler, had in 1989 cosponsored the bill that embedded the "Prior and Persistent Drug Offender" statute into the law. More than two decades later, Downs' reporting revealed that the legislation had enabled prosecutors to successfully convict and sentence a small-time Sedalia marijuana dealer to a life sentence.
The sentence shocked Caskey.
"Looking back at it now," the retired lawmaker told Downs, "I wouldn't vote for it."
Earlier that year, Downs had broken the story of Missouri's unique "PPDO" statute in a story titled "How a Missouri Man Could Die in Prison for Weed." Its subject, Jeff Mizanskey, was serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole because of his past marijuana-related felonies, which had given prosecutors the opening to charge him as a "prior and persistent" offender after he was arrested for his minor role in a drug deal in 1993.
Eventually, a coalition of activists and cannabis reform made Mizanskey a symbol of the state's legalization campaigns, and, in 2015, Governor Jay Nixon commuted Mizanskey's sentence. At age 60, after serving more than 21 years in prison, Mizanskey was granted parole.
Two years later, the reform of Missouri's criminal codes erased the law responsible for Mizanskey's extraordinary sentence. The tide seemed to shift. In 2018, 65 percent of Missouri voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana.
"The idea that in 2021 you would lock up a 40-year-old for the rest of his life for drugs, we've changed our views on this, we've come a long way," says John Ammann, a Saint Louis University law professor and a founder of the Community Coalition for Clemency. Among Ammann's clemency cases is that of Timothy Prosser, who, like Mizanskey, is serving a life sentence without parole for drug charges.
Prosser's substance of choice had been meth, which he'd started using as a way to manage an opioid addiction he could no longer feed through legal means.
"We know a lot more about drug addiction, we know more about the opioid crisis," Ammann argues. "That's the reason why everybody, including the governor, is saying we need to treat these cases differently than we did ten or fifteen years ago."
That sentiment echoes that of Carl Kinsky, the Ste. Genevieve County prosecuting attorney who oversaw Prosser's trial in 2004. Kinsky had set out to make an example of Prosser, and so he held nothing back at trial, going as far as convincing the judge to withhold a key piece of information from the jury as they deliberated on Prosser's sentence.
What jurors didn't know at the time was that Prosser had lost his eligibility for parole. When they returned a verdict for life in prison, they didn't know they'd sealed Prosser's death.
Over the years, the case gnawed at Kinsky. A decade later, the prosecutor wrote to Governor Jay Nixon to request Prosser's commutation.
"Time gives you some distance," Kinsky first told the RFT in 2016. "I've had cases where I've had qualms about the punishment, but this one seems to be in a completely different class."
In the letter, Kinsky laid bare his 2004 strategy to deny Prosser every benefit at trial. When police arrested Prosser, they'd confiscated and weighed the jars and bottles of precursor chemicals that comprised the "lab" of a small-time meth cook — but the substance was entered into evidence as fully produced, sellable meth.
The sheer quantity of alleged "meth" allowed Kinsky to invoke a different sentence enhancement woven into Missouri's drug laws, this one targeting possession of more than 350 grams of meth — far more than Prosser could have produced with his materials.
The jury found Prosser guilty; that was simple enough. But during the sentencing, the jury submitted a question to the judge: Did Prosser qualify for parole? Here, Kinsky made his most devastating move: He argued that the jury had no right to an answer.
It made a sort of sense. After all, under the law, Prosser's massive trove of meth had enhanced his possession charge and thus erased his opportunity for parole. The jury only needed to pick a number between ten and life. Parole was, at this point, irrelevant.
The judge agreed with Kinsky, and so the jury made their decision in ignorance. Years later, one of Prosser's former jury members signed an affidavit testifying that she'd assumed Prosser could be paroled; in fact, she claimed that the jury specifically settled on a life sentence because they were worried a shorter sentence, like 30 years, would allow Prosser to qualify for parole too soon.
Instead, the jury unknowingly condemned him to die in prison. In his letter, Kinsky called it "unconscionable" that Prosser had been denied the rights of even a murder defendant, whose jury would at least know up front that their sentence would carry no parole.
"I do not make this request lightly," Kinsky wrote to Nixon, concluding the letter. "It is the result of considerable soul-searching."
Nixon never responded, nor did Eric Greitens. Now it's Parson's turn. Prosser is 53 and long sober, and with Mizanskey freed, he is now the only prisoner in Missouri serving a single life sentence related to nonviolent drug charges. His is just another example of the flexibility of Missouri's cruel drug laws, which provided prosecutors the tools they needed to stack charges or confuse a jury; everything they needed to send a small-time drug dealer to a slow death.
"It continues to trouble me," Kinsky, now a private attorney, tells RFT in a phone interview earlier this month. "I just hope that I don't go to my grave with him still rotting in prison."
In the wake of Parson's latest commutations, a cautious hope is rising among Missouri criminal justice advocates. The governor's actions suggest that, for the first time in more than a decade, Missouri is moving toward addressing its logjam of clemencies — and Parson has clearly shown an interest in the "prior and persistent" drug offenders left behind by the 2017 repeal.
In December, the Community Coalition for Clemency submitted a list of ten names to the governor's legal counsel, all involving women — and although Parson did not commute any of Ammann's clients, he says the coalition "is very encouraged that the governor has a systematic approach to addressing clemencies."
"This is the thing about clemency: The governor is using his power to correct injustice," Ammann notes. "It doesn't mean a bunch of people will leave prison tomorrow; it means they have to go through the parole process."
Parson isn't the only elected official taking note. In the spring of 2020, the plight of the "erroneously released" Dimetrious Woods caught the attention of Missouri Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville.
In April, Reisch had lobbied Parson's office to commute Woods' sentence before the state could return him to prison. On April 22, she stood in the governor's office and watched as Parson gave Woods his life back.
Reisch's interest didn't stop at Woods. In December, she had submitted her own list of names for Parson's holiday-season clemencies. Her list included the case of Gary Mitchell, whose fifteen-year drug sentence Parson commuted along with those of Darrell Harris and Jason Norman in his December 21 announcement.
But with hundreds of drug offenders still locked in no-parole sentences, the rate of a few clemencies every Christmas provides small hope to those waiting for bigger change. There's nothing to stop Parson from commuting and restoring parole eligibility at a mass scale — and if he did so, he wouldn't even be the first Republican governor to go through with it. In November 2019, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commutated the sentences of 527 people imprisoned for drug possession and low-level offenses, the first of a series of commutations that freed hundreds more. Before reaching Stitt's desk, the cases are vetted by a special "commutation docket" established by the state's legislature.
In Missouri, a system that processes mass commutations through the coordination of lawmakers, probation officials and the governor is not on the table.
What does exist is House Bill 504. Sponsored by Reisch, the bill seeks to restore parole eligibility to Missouri's "prior and persistent" drug offenders who have already served ten years in prison. Their eligibility would be conditioned on parole authorities finding "there is a strong and reasonable probability that the offender will not thereafter violate the law."
But as with the 2017 repeal, there's a catch: If passed, the new law would affect less than half of the 233 prisoners serving no-parole drug sentences.
Reisch acknowledges that her bill offers only a partial solution. Part of the challenge, she notes, is the complexity of the old drug laws. The designation for "prior and persistent" offender had been spread among a total of six drug statutes in the criminal code, among them the crimes for "trafficking" and "drug distribution," as well as the separate statutes for drug dealing near public housing and schools.
The other part of the problem is Missouri itself. Historically, its political leaders haven't shown much interest in the plight of drug dealers.
"We do have to remember," Reisch adds, "our governor was a sheriff. He's a law-and-order kind of guy."
In Missouri, harsh drug laws have produced substantial pain and little order for the men and women still denied a chance at rehabilitation. In an interview with one of them over a shaky prison phone line, inmate Dean Ballentine says the situation is "heartbreaking."
"Everybody else from 2017 to now are eligible for parole, and I just don't see how that would not be retroactive," he argues. "I've taken every class, I've got like 85 certificates, been in the dog program for five years now. I've got a good prison record."
In 2013, Ballentine was sentenced to thirteen years on a no-parole sentence for a drug trafficking conviction in Camden County. "I had a little bit of meth," he explains. Court records show Ballentine had no criminal record in Missouri, though he says prosecutors cited his old felonies in Arizona to designate him a "prior and persistent" offender.
Ballentine entered prison three years after a diagnosis for colon cancer. He now uses a colostomy bag and spends most of his time under care in the medical wing of the Boonville Correctional Center. With a compromised immune system, he tries to avoid the COVID-19 risk of gatherings, but it's impossible to avoid the chow line in the cafeteria or the canteen.
When Parson issued the first of his commutations in 2020, Ballentine confesses he felt a surge of hope. He expected the policy to "trickle down" to the hundreds of other inmates in the same bind as Dimetrious Woods.
Ballentine is still waiting. He's depressed, and, he admits, more than a little discouraged as he watches drug offenders convicted after 2017 qualify for parole.
"It's been tough," he says. "Prison is hard enough, and it gets pretty disappointing."
Even with Parson's apparent interest in clemencies, Ballentine and the rest of Missouri's drug offenders can only hope their names will appear on the next shortlist. In a statement from the governor's office, spokeswoman Kelli Jones says Parson "has instructed his legal team to continue working through a review of the backlog of pending clemency applications" and acknowledged that offenders serving no-parole drug cases under a repealed law "present unique circumstances worthy of consideration."
For Ballentine and the others, consideration isn't enough. For them, years beat on, grams turned into decades — lifetimes frozen in a ceaseless punishment for their pasts.
Ballentine turned 58 this year. He'll be 66 by the time he completes his full sentence in 2026. By then, Parson could be long gone from the governor's mansion.
"I just don't understand," Ballentine says. "How can Parson can give so few people clemencies and not the others in the same situation? I guess he can do what he wants to do."