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Missouri Repealed its Harshest Drug Law. Hundreds Were Left Behind 

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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.

Darrell Harris, shown with his daughter Reanna, was serving a 42-year sentence for drugs when a commutation freed him. "I about cried," he says of Parson's clemency. "It had been such a long time." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Darrell Harris, shown with his daughter Reanna, was serving a 42-year sentence for drugs when a commutation freed him. "I about cried," he says of Parson's clemency. "It had been such a long time."

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.

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