20 Years for $40 of Crack, 10 Years for 2 Oz. of Pot? It Happens in St. Louis, Not Just Out West
These types of lengthy sentences handed out under the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute are not always about punishment, but because of a prosecutor's desire to have more control over the sentence, according to St. Louis public defender Rick Kroeger.
"They will charge someone as prior or persistent knowing that they can get without probation or parole and they use that to force our hand to agree to something that they want," Kroeger tells Daily RFT.
In order to avoid a blind plea -- in which a defendant will plead guilty and then have a judge sentence them -- a prosecutor will hang the prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute over the defendant's head to scare them into pleading guilty and accepting the prosecutor's desired sentence, which is usually more years, but with the possibility of parole.
"Prosecutors know our hands are tied if our client wants to avoid a [without parole] sentence," Kroeger says. "So basically I think it's their way of trying to avoid open pleas knowing that a judge would more likely than not give a better sentence than the state would agree to."
An example of how that works is a prosecutor offers a defendant twenty years with parole, which means they will be eligible (though no guaranteed) for release after 15 percent of their sentence -- about three years.
Or the defendant can go to trial and take his or her chances of either being found not guilty and going home or being found guilty and getting a minimum of ten years without parole -- and that's only if the judge decides to give them the most lenient sentence.
Many times it's not worth the risk, even if the defendant is innocent, because the judge can always decide to increase the punishment if he or she feels like doing so.
However, Kroeger says, although lengthy punishments do happen, they are still rare.
"I think more often than not, what we have seen here in the city is that judges realize ten years minimum [without parole] is extreme and to go above that would be unnecessary or unfair compared to other sentences for other crimes," he says.
But that hasn't stopped the Prior and Persistent Drug Offender charge from being used. Instead, it has become more common in St. Louis, according to Kroeger, as well as a few "tough on crime" counties in the rest of the state, according to Greg Mermelstein, a division director with the Missouri State Public Defenders' Office.
That is despite rhetoric from politicians that long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are too costly and ineffective.
"[The Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute] has definitely been on the rise," Mermelstein says.
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