A repealed Missouri law that punished even nonviolent drug offenders with decadeslong prison sentences continues to keep people behind bars. Until recently, one was Dawn Huston, who was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years for selling a total of 5 ounces of marijuana to an undercover police officer.
At the time of her arrest, Huston’s criminal record included only one previous low-level drug conviction. In 2011, charging documents show she sold marijuana three times to an undercover police officer at her home in Marshall. Huston wasn’t handling kingpin-levels of narcotics. One purchase involved an exchange of $20 for four grams of weed.
At the time, Huston believed “I was doing somebody a favor,” she said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It just went downhill at that point.”
More than seven years passed. In January, Huston’s life took an upward turn when her sentence was commuted by an official act of clemency from Gov. Mike Parson. Around a week later, she walked out of Chillicothe Correctional Center.
Huston said she’s grateful for her freedom and making the most of it. “Things couldn’t be better,” she said. “I’m blessed in so many ways. I found a job, reconnected with my family. My daughter is doing good. Just small blessings are starting to come my way.”
Much has changed since Huston’s conviction in 2014. Her 4-year-old daughter is now nearly a teenager. Five ounces of marijuana — the quantity that landed her in prison — would be, today, legal to possess or cultivate in Missouri with a medical card.
There have also been major changes to Missouri’s criminal laws. The same year Huston entered prison, a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers passed a sweeping reform of Missouri’s criminal codes, reforming the statutes that define specific crimes and their associated range of punishments. Among the changes was a repeal of the “Prior and Persistent Drug Offender” statute, a uniquely harsh sentencing law passed in 1989 that made repeat drug offenders — even nonviolent ones like Huston — subject to prison sentences ranging from ten years to life.
The law also made “prior and persistent” offenders ineligible for parole. In the vast majority of cases, incarcerated people — even those convicted of violent crimes — are able to appear before a parole board after serving between 30% to 50% of their sentence. The board determines whether the person should be given early release, which would allow them to serve the rest of the sentence under supervised probation.
Huston never had that chance. Years into her sentence for a nonviolent marijujana crime, she said, she learned that she would never see a parole board, and that she would have to serve the entirety of her 15-year sentence. The news almost broke her.
“I couldn’t understand how this could be happening,” she recalled. “I was just beside myself for a long time. But a lot of the women and staff there helped me, and I went to the law library every day to try to figure it out … because I had no clue. So I just learned on my own and kept trying to do clemencies.”
The law didn’t help Huston. In 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the repeal of the “prior and persistent” sentencing law only applied to future cases, not those already adjudicated in the past. Huston said she filed several applications for clemency.
Eventually, her pleas reached Gov. Mike Parson, who has taken a demonstrated interest in commuting the cases of long-term drug offenders still serving no-parole sentences as “prior and persistent” offenders. His commutation for Huston on Jan. 31 was at least the 15th time the governor has used his clemency powers to free a drug offender.
Parson has issued new clemencies every month or so, but that rate is low compared to the backlog of thousands of clemency applications that accumulated over the past decade as previous administrations ignored cries for change. In 2021, the Riverfront Times reported that Missouri prison data showed more than 200 cases of “prior and persistent” drug offenders still serving outdated sentences without the possibility for parole. One case involves a man sentenced to life for manufacturing meth. Without parole, he is doomed to die in prison.
There is a glimmer of hope for at least some of Missouri’s still-imprisoned “prior and persistent” offenders. During 2021’s legislative session, state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, a Republican from Hallsville, sponsored a bill with support and input from the Missouri Department of Corrections. The bill would have restored parole to 35 offenders convicted of drug trafficking who were still serving lengthy sentences under Missouri’s previous drug laws.
The proposal was later transformed into an amendment to a Senate bill. By the end of the legislative session, the Senate bill was voted through. It appeared that Reisch’s reform would become law.
However, in the frenzied editing and amending of the Senate bill before the final vote, Reisch’s amendment was deleted by mistake when a legislative staff member wasn’t sure if the bill was properly written. The deletion amounted to “a clerical error,” Reisch said Thursday.
“I didn’t even know because it was the very last day of session,” she said. “I was just shocked and upset. I had gotten that bill passed unanimously through the House committees.”
On Feb. 24, Reisch refiled a new version of the bill, House Bill 2780. After 2021’s near-success, she said she still believes there’s support to make things right for those prisoners trapped “in the cracks” between the state’s old drug laws and recent reforms.
That doesn’t mean an automatic release for everyone.
“They will still have to go in front of the parole board, make sure they’ve been good citizens while incarcerated,” she said. “This is a nonpartisan issue. It’s not a Democrat or Republican. I think everyone is on board with this. Everybody sees [that] we want people to become productive members of society.”