Missouri legislators this year rolled back two high-profile laws passed during tough-on-crime crusades of the 1980s and 1990s.

One would end the sentencing disparity that imposes the same penalty for selling an ounce of crack cocaine as a pound of powder cocaine. The other would bar the courts from trying children aged 12 or 13 as adults except for the most serious violent crimes.

Both changes are being praised as steps that will help make the courts fairer to people from minority communities. The provisions are included in a wide-ranging bill addressing criminal justice issues that also includes an expanded conviction review process and new training standards for police chiefs.

The crack-powder disparity entered Missouri law in 1989, when lawmakers made the penalty for selling the smokable drug – cheap, widely available and tied to escalating gang violence over market share – equal to the penalty for selling 75 times as much powder cocaine, which is usually snorted or injected.

As originally written, someone convicted of selling a little more than a quarter ounce of crack received a minimum 10 year sentence without possibility of parole. To receive the same penalty for selling powder cocaine, the amount had to be one pound.

In 2012, the disparity was cut to 18.75 times, with a minimum 10-year sentence for selling 24 grams of crack or 450 grams of powder cocaine. In 2014, the ban on probation or parole for those convictions was repealed.

“Missouri was home to one of the worst crack-powder sentencing disparities in the nation, and today is an enormous step toward righting that historical wrong,” Maria Goellner, deputy policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums said in a news release the bill cleared the Missouri legislature.

State Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Bowling Green, sponsored a standalone bill eliminating the disparity and saw it incorporated into the Senate-initiated crime bill. It is his proudest achievement of the session, Perkins said in an interview with The Independent.

In the 1980s, crack was new, Perkins said. 

“The government did what the government often does, it overreacted,” he said. “That overreaction has hurt a lot of people.”

Most states that had disparity in crack and powder cocaine penalties have repealed them. If Parson signs the crime bill, only seven states will still have disparity laws in place. 

In 2021, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that while drug use surveys showed similar consumption rates for crack among White and Black users, “the overwhelming number of arrests nonetheless came from Black communities who were disproportionately impacted by the facially neutral, yet illogically harsh, crack penalties.”

During a hearing on Perkins’ bill, James Robnett, criminal justice chair for the Missouri NAACP, said the result is distrust of law enforcement in minority communities.

“As a result of the unfairness, these community members see the criminal justice system as unfair and biased,” Robnett said.

Rural Missouri is more than 80% White and law enforcement agencies told him crack use is not common, Perkins said. 

“I have talked to prosecutors across the state, and they said ‘we don’t have crack cocaine in rural Missouri, that is only something  that happens in cities,’” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to point out that there are more minorities in the cities.”

Juvenile crime

Prior to 1995, a Missouri youth under 14 who committed a crime that would be a felony for an adult could only be held in custody until age 18. 

Since then, juvenile officers have been able to ask courts to treat children as young as 12 as adults. For violent crimes, repeat offenses or drug trafficking, juveniles of any age must go through a court hearing to determine if they should be tried as an adult.

The crime bill on Parson’s desk would restore the minimum age of 14 for optional hearings and, for the first time since 1995, prevent children under 12 from being tried as adults for any reason.

In the 28 years the law has been in effect, it — like the crack penalties — has been felt most harshly in minority communities, said Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.

“We do review that data quite regularly,” she said. “Youth of color, especially black youth, are certified at higher rates.”

During state fiscal 2022, there were 2,106 cases of “delinquency” filed in juvenile court, a category that includes youth crime. Of that number, 53 were certified for trial as an adult and 420 were committed to the Division of Youth Services, the state agency for holding young offenders.

Restoring the floor to 14 for optional hearings and setting 12 as the youngest offender who could face adult penalties in mandatory hearings recognizes that those cases are extremely rare, Hazelhorst said.

“There hasn’t been someone under 14 certified since 2011,” she said.

The change is the latest revision to laws governing juvenile crime intended to help youth avoid the stigma of a criminal record and overcome racial disparity in youth incarceration. In 2021, Missouri set 18 as the age when juvenile court authority ends. Previously, an offender aged 17 was considered an adult.

That change, as well as new federal regulations about housing youth offenders, has created new stresses for the juvenile justice system, Hazelhorst said.

There has been an unexpectedly large number of 17-year-old offenders, she said. In addition, the 2018 revisions to the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act require offenders under 18, even if certified for trial as adults, to be housed in juvenile facilities.

That puts offenders on the verge of adulthood in the same population as very young offenders and means many are staying far longer, Hazelhorst said.

“Facilities are designed to be short-term housing and are now being used longer term,” she said. “They are keeping a person in detention occupying a bed while other youth move in and out.”

There is a need for an intermediate solution, Hazelhorst said.

“Those older youth have significant needs, and often mental health needs,” she said. “It is creating a really challenging environment.”