How A Last-Minute Edit Doomed Parole Option For Some Missouri Drug Offenders
“Heartbroken” is the word Missouri state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch used to sum up what she’s feeling in the wake of the 2021 legislative session. Last week, the Republican from Hallsville learned that legislation she’d hoped would soon open doors for certain nonviolent drug offenders serving decades-long, no-parole terms didn’t make it into the final version of Senate Bill 26.
Reisch told St. Louis on the Air that the removal of her amendment from the omnibus bill, which impacts a wide range of public-safety-related matters, appears to have resulted from a clerical question about a small detail.
“The way it was explained to me [by] staff, was that a drafter thought that it had an incorrect RSMo [Missouri Revised Statutes] number, that maybe the statute cited in this amendment may have been incorrect,” Reisch said on Monday’s show. “And so they didn’t want to take a chance of doing it wrong, and so they took it out at the last minute in what they call a conference committee.”
Emphasizing that the switch was “nothing nefarious,” Reisch explained that SB26 was then approved May 14 without her amendment in place. The session ended that same evening, closing the door on any attempt to amend the text or work through the technicalities.
If it had been included, Reisch’s legislation would have allowed parole for some people sentenced under Missouri’s prior-and-persistent drug offender statute, which sentenced hundreds of nonviolent offenders to decades behind bars. More than 200 of them remain there.
An analysis by the Missouri Department of Corrections suggested Reisch’s legislation would affect 35 inmates, with eight already at the point where they’d qualify for parole.
The legislature repealed the prior-and-persistent drug offender statute in 2014. But after it went into effect, the courts confirmed that the change was not retroactive.
One man sentenced under the law, Dimetrious Woods, took his case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. He lost, although Gov. Mike Parson later commuted his sentence.
Woods’ case caught Reisch’s attention. She says people like him “fell in the crack,” and “therefore it needed a fix in the law.”
The deletion of Reisch’s amendment in the final moments of the 2021 legislative session isn’t the first roadblock she has encountered in her efforts to address Missouri’s harsh drug sentences.
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the priorities of the 2020 session. When the legislature reconvened this year, Reisch filed a standalone bill, House Bill 504, which made it out of committee with unanimous support. But with time again running out, Reisch ultimately opted to add it as an amendment to the controversial SB26.
Even though the 2021 session has now ended, forcing her to garner support all over again, Reisch isn’t giving up. She said she’ll be working with Parson and the Missouri Department of Corrections this summer, refining her legislation to encompass even more nonviolent drug offenders. She hopes to get on the agenda for a special session.
“I’m going to be looking at maybe, if there’s time and if it would fit within the scope of any special sessions, to maybe see if I can get this back in,” she said. “Otherwise it will have to wait till next January.”
In the meantime, Reisch continues to work with Parson, urging him to commute sentences where appropriate. She has recommended four offenders to him for commutation; he has commuted the sentences of all four.
Parson declined to join the on-air conversation, but a spokesperson provided a statement.
“Governor Parson is committed to using his Constitutional authority to provide second chances to individuals who have demonstrated changed lifestyles,” the statement read. “He has directed his legal team to continue working to eliminate the backlog of clemency applications that has accumulated during previous administrations. It is important that individuals who have abandoned their criminal behaviors, and who have either become productive members of society, or have demonstrated an ability to do so, have opportunities. Clemency can often help provide that opportunity or open doors and remove barriers.”
Reisch said she has been impressed by the people she’s met while working on this issue.
“They really truly have changed, and they want to get back and become a productive member of society,” she said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.