IMAGES COURTESY OF LISA KELLEY
In prison since 2012, Trevor Saller watched as Missouri legalized cannabis medicinally — the same drug that landed him a thirteen-year sentence.
On May 24, 2011, two young men faced felony drug charges after police tracked several pounds of marijuana arriving by mail to a home in Warren County, Missouri, about an hour's drive west of St. Louis.
One of them, Trevor Saller, is still in prison.
"I was young and dumb, and when you're 21, I feel like a lot of people make decisions they feel poorly about later on in life," Saller says in a phone interview from the Algoa Correctional Center, describing the period of his youth when a series of drug charges — along with Missouri's harshest drug law — derailed his future.
Now 31, Saller is among the more than 200 Missouri prisoners currently serving "enhanced" sentences under a law that for decades targeted low-level drug offenders
with mandatory prison time ranging from ten years to life.
The law, passed in 1989, applied a unique designation to its incarcerated subjects, marking them as "prior and persistent" drug offenders.
For the last nine years, that label has defined Saller's life. In 2012, Saller was sentenced to thirteen years in prison, and he's now approaching his "conditional release date" set for August 4, 2022. The benchmark is one that most inmates never reach, because the vast majority of the state's drug prisoners are released to parole after serving a portion of their total sentence.
But Saller and the other "prior and persistent" offenders are not eligible for parole
. As RFT
has reported extensively, the law's provisions were designed to take a drug crime that, by itself, would carry only a couple years behind bars and multiply the punishment into decades, even life
, in prison.
"The state of Missouri has decided to make me exceptional in this terrible way," Saller explains, and points out that in the years since his sentencing Missouri both repealed the statute behind the "prior the persistent" law and
legalized medical marijuana.
Neither development affected his case.
"I've watched everything shift, I've felt things change," he says of society's evolving perspective on cannabis. He describes watching coverage of Colorado's early legalization efforts on a prison TV, and then following the news closely as multiple states began addressing the damage wrought by the War on Drugs.
"It's difficult to process," he reflects. "If I sit and I think about it, I just go, 'Wow, why am I still in this position?'"
The answer lies in a mix of legal and legislative obstacles. Although the Missouri legislature repealed the "prior and persistent" law in 2017, the state's Supreme Court rejected arguments from current inmates who believed that the repeal should extend retroactively and restore their eligibility for parole. The high court's ruling was followed by action by Missouri Governor Mike Parson, who has vowed to address the state's backlog of clemency applications. His attention fell repeatedly on those cases from "prior and persistent" offenders left behind by the repeal.
Over the past year, Parson has issued a flurry of commutations that restored parole to "prior and persistent" offenders otherwise barred from early release. The clemencies led to the release of eight drug offenders, while a ninth, Robert Franklin
, had his parole status restored by a governor's commutation in May and is awaiting a hearing with a parole board.
However, Saller's clemency applications have returned only silence from the governor's office.
"It's like the governor is my parole board, and that's a tall order," Saller notes. "Bless him for doing the clemencies, that's wonderful that he's been benevolent enough to do that for others, but it feels like there's a disconnect in that I should have an opportunity somewhere to reap the benefit of the personal growth and personal change that I was able to do."
Saller's case isn't unique, but he is also an example of the struggle weighing on offenders trapped in lengthy sentences while dealing with addiction and mental health challenges — issues that are made much harder, according to Saller, when you don't have any hope of being able to demonstrate your rehabilitation to a parole board.
"I haven't always been successful in my prison time," he acknowledges, adding that he struggled with depression and "issues with opioids" that he obtained illicitly during his first years inside prison.
"I’ve had violations for drugs," he continues. "I've fallen victim to demons from my past, but thankfully they haven’t swallowed me up like my friends."
One of those friends was Ty Kruse, Saller's co-defendant in the bust of the marijuana shipment in May 2011
. While Kruse and Saller faced identical charges, only Saller had the prior felony history to make him "prior and persistent."
Kruse, meanwhile, fled the state, only to be extradited in 2014 to Warren County and sentenced to five years probation. In 2017, a probation violation briefly sent Kruse to prison, reuniting him with Saller in Algoa.
"It was like seeing my brother for the first time in five years," Saller recalls. "I was just happy to see him outside of the drugs and partying and all the stuff we used to do. It was like getting to know him again for the first time."
Saller says he and Kruse committed themselves to "a lifestyle of fitness and health." But Saller still owed at least five more years in prison. Kruse, who retained his parole eligibility, was soon approved for release.
It wasn't the first time Saller had watched someone with similar drug charges walk out of prison, leaving him behind. In the fiscal year of 2019, Missouri's Department of Corrections released 626 non-violent felony drug offenders after an average of under four years behind bars. According to the prison data, 93 percent of those drug offenders passed through a parole board on their way out.
But according to Saller, Kruse had his own demons, and in 2020 his life outside prison ended in a fatal overdose. For Saller, the fate of his friend was a tragic example of drug addiction, but the divergence of their cases was also a reflection of Missouri's failure to correct the damage of its previous drug laws, which, despite the 2017 repeal, continue to trap hundreds of people in prison without parole.
Saller can only wait until his time is up next summer. He knows that other "prior and persistent" drug offenders — some trapped in multi-decade or even life sentences
— aren't so lucky.
"If I'm being honest," he says, "there's been a lack of people taking responsibility for the way Missouri used to be. There's a vacuum, and people aren't standing up and saying, 'We need to right these wrongs.'"
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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