Chance at Freedom for Some Missouri Drug Offenders Rests On Controversial Bill

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click to enlarge Missouri's drug laws are in play as lawmakers work through the last days of the legislative session. - FLICKR/Jimmy Emerson
Missouri's drug laws are in play as lawmakers work through the last days of the legislative session.

In 2017, the Missouri legislature tried and failed to fully repeal a law that traps non-violent drug offenders in prison for decades — but now, with just days left in the current legislative session, an effort to finally finish the job hinges on what is arguably the most controversial bill of the year.

That bill, Senate Bill 26, is stuffed to the absolute gills with new laws, many of them dealing with police. One headline-grabbing provision would target protesters by creating a crime for intentionally blocking a roadway. Another component, a sweeping set of protections for cops accused of misconduct, is so officer-friendly that the chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department came out to oppose the measure because it would undermine the department's ability to investigate crooked cops.

On May 5, the bill got even busier, as the Missouri House approved the legislation while adding some 40 amendments — including one that could finally open a door for some inmates who have spent more than ten years in prison serving sentences as "prior and persistent drug offenders."

As the RFT has reported previously, the designation allowed prosecutors and courts to enhance otherwise low-level drug crimes if a defendant had two prior drug felonies.

For example, with a "prior and persistent" designation, a felony charge for second-degree trafficking — which put an average drug offender in prison for about five years before they could be paroled — became a ten-year minimum sentence without the possibility for parole.

The law resulted in extreme sentences for moderate amounts of drugs. But while lawmakers repealed the state's uniquely harsh version of a "three-strike law" effective in 2017, the repeal wasn't retroactive.

That was where Rep. Cheri Toalson-Reisch came in. A Republican lawmaker representing Boone County, Toalson-Reisch had advocated for the case of Dimetrious Woods, the subject of multiple RFT cover stories and a convicted "prior and persistent" drug offender who had managed to win his own freedom in 2018 by arguing that the repeal did, in fact, extend into the past, and therefore meant he was eligible for parole.

The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with Woods, ruling in 2020 that he had been "erroneously released" — but, with the advocacy of Toalson-Reisch and others, Gov. Mike Parson intervened and commuted Woods' sentence in 2020, allowing him to remain free.

Of course, that avenue for freedom is limited to the governor's clemency powers. Toalson-Reisch is trying to create a different option through the legislature. Her bill, filed this year, would restore parole eligibility to "prior and persistent" offenders who were convicted of trafficking and have already served ten years in prison.

"With the original bill I filed, I was reaching the people that fell into what I call 'the crack' of the law that went into effect in 2017," she says.

Toalson-Reisch says she wasn't the only one looking at long-term drug offenders left behind by the repeal.

"The Department of Corrections actually came to me and said, 'Hey, we've been studying this and working on this with our attorneys, and we would like to expand your bill to encompass more people.'"

And that's what she did, expanding the bill to include both first-degree and second-degree drug trafficking. According to an analysis from the Department of Corrections, the law, if passed, would affect a total of 35 drug offenders convicted of trafficking, eight of whom have already passed the ten-year mark in their sentences.

Toalson-Reisch acknowledges that her bill-turned-amendment reaches only a portion of the total number of "prior and persistent" drug offenders, many of whom were convicted not as drug traffickers, but for other drug crimes like "distribution" or possession near public housing or schools.

According to 2020 prison data, more than 230 offenders are currently serving prison sentences on the now-repealed 2017 law. While dozens appear to have already served ten or more years, records show that legal delays in 33 cases meant that their convictions, despite falling after 2017, are governed by the drug laws as they existed at the time of their offenses — meaning they are in the early stages of serving their ten-year minimum sentences without possibility for parole.

Now an amendment to Senate Bill 26, the fate of Toalson-Reisch's proposal is contingent on whether it makes it into the bill's final version, which is currently being negotiated by the House and Senate. From there, the matter will be in Gov. Mike Parson's hands.

Parson, though, is clearly aware of the issue. Along with Woods, Parson has issued nine commutations of "prior and persistent" drug offenders since 2020, including four cases backed by Toalson-Reisch.

"I'm concentrating on the nonviolent drug offenders," she says. "That seems to be, so far, the ones the governor's office has been most open to."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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