It’s not very often that state lawmakers, particularly those of the Republican ilk, pass a law that actually reduces criminal sentences. Nothing earns more support more quickly in the state Capitol than a “tough-on-crime” bill.
But last year, Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature did just that. As part of a sweeping judicial reform bill, the legislature reduced Missouri’s widest-in-the-country disparity between the sentences that defendants receive when caught with crack cocaine versus those caught with the same weight of powder cocaine.
Such disparities have been a problem throughout the country and were reduced at the federal level in 2010. The reason for the disparities, and the equally important reason to get rid of them, comes down to race.
Powder cocaine is more expensive. Overwhelmingly, those charged with possessing it are white. Black defendants are more likely to possess crack.
The drugs cause roughly the same problems in society, yet under Missouri law before August 2012, the penalties for crack were 75 times higher. Today, they’re 18 times higher. It’s a start.
There is no justice in such racial disparities, and thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and former Rep. Tishaura Jones, a St. Louis Democrat who is now the city treasurer, Democrats and Republicans alike recognized the injustice and significantly reduced the disparity.
Unfortunately, some defendants might not benefit from the law.
Take the case of Jackie Murphy. Murphy was charged in St. Louis with possession of crack before the new law went into effect last August. His is one of many such cases in the state that was in the court “pipeline” but had not yet been fully adjudicated.
Many prosecutors statewide, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, recognized the spirit of the new law (and the clear injustice in the old one) and have treated “pipeline” cases as though they existed under the new, fairer guidelines.
St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said that she, too, is a supporter of the new law and plans to apply it to “the vast majority of cases” in the pipeline. In Murphy’s case, however, Joyce’s office is opposing a motion by the defense that seeks to dismiss the charges against him because he is charged with a Class B felony, instead of the Class C charge he would have faced under the new law.
We agree with Joyce that the charges should not be dismissed. But they should be amended.
The dispute could have been avoided had Joyce, as a matter of course, sought to amend charges in all crack cocaine possession cases her office is prosecuting, following the spirit of the new law.
As it is, on Monday she said that if defense attorneys ask her office for such cases to be amended, in most cases she will do so.
Fine. We’ll play the middle man. Hey, defense attorneys: Call Joyce today.
That still leaves Murphy facing a potential unjust penalty. It defies any understanding of justice to argue that Murphy should face five to 15 years in prison for possession of the same amount of cocaine that today would net him a sentence of one day to seven years behind bars.
Lawmakers, or at least the most important ones, clearly intended for the law to apply to cases already in the court system.
“The intent was to affect cases that are currently in the pipeline,” Jones said. “We were trying to affect as many people as possible.”
Applying a 75-to-1 sentencing disparity was repugnant before Missouri lawmakers made the law better; and it’s even more so now.
The old law was a relic of our state and nation’s historic blindness to disparate treatment of white and black defendants in the courts. That’s not Joyce’s fault, but she continues the injustice by not finding a way to follow the clear spirit of the new law in every case facing her office.
The cause of justice demands that St. Louis Circuit Judge John Riley apply the new law’s guidance to Murphy’s case. Other St. Louis judges should do the same to any crack cocaine cases in the court pipeline that started before August 2012. And if Joyce won’t amend cases on her own, defense attorneys should start asking one-by-one that she do so immediately.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.