Missouri Supreme Court
The Missouri Supreme Court is considering whether a recent softening of the penalties for repeat drug offenses applies retroactively to people still serving harsh sentences.
The court heard back-to-back cases on April 10 involving Gary L. Mitchell and Dimetrious Woods. Both were both prior drug offenders who were given lengthy sentences for second-degree drug trafficking.
Until 2017, section 195.223 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri required such offenders to be sentenced under the range for a class A felony, without the possibility of probation or parole. Mitchell’s offense occurred in 2013 and resulted in a 15-year sentence. Woods’ occurred in 2007, and he was given 25 years in prison.
But on Jan. 1, 2017, the state’s overhaul of the criminal code went into effect. Among the many changes, the crime of second-degree drug trafficking was transferred to a different statute, and the requirement for a mandatory term of imprisonment for prior and persistent drug offenders was repealed.
Mitchell and Woods separately argued that they should benefit from the recent change and be granted parole hearings. Though both cases were brought before the same judge in Cole County, they achieved opposite effects: Judge Daniel R. Green denied Mitchell’s pro se request for a parole hearing, but he granted it to Woods, who was represented by a lawyer.
Kansas City-based attorney Kent Gipson, now representing both men, argued on April 10 that well-settled law requires the change in the law to operate retroactively. He said there are approximately 120 prisoners in Missouri who stand to benefit from the legislature’s criminal justice reform efforts.
“Everybody on the political spectrum from the Koch Brothers to Bernie Sanders believes that nonviolent drug offenders do not deserve to be locked up forever,” Gipson said.
The inmates’ arguments center on a 2004 Missouri Supreme Court ruling, State ex rel. Nixon v. Russell, which had allowed a newly enacted statute to operate retroactively. The statute at issue in that case had permitted parole for some nonviolent felonies, and the Supreme Court said it could be applied to previously convicted inmates because it didn’t shorten their actual sentences or alter the law that created their original offenses.
But the Missouri Attorney General’s Office argued that the lack of parole in the original statute was part of the substantive law governing the offense, and that the two defendants were stuck with their original sentences.
“The sentence specifically takes away the mercy of parole,” Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane argued in Woods’ case. “There’s no solid argument that that’s not a punishment. If the situation were reversed, there’s no argument that Woods would say, ‘This isn’t punishing me more if you take away my parole eligibility.’”
The cases reached the Supreme Court after separate panels of the Court of Appeals Western District in January concluded (with some dissent) that the change in the law didn’t operate retroactively. However, the Western District transferred both matters to the Supreme Court for a final ruling on the law.
The cases are Mitchell v. Jones, SC97631, and Woods v. Missouri Department of Corrections, SC97633.