The Missouri State Highway Patrol was closing in on Robert Franklin.
It was February 10, 2007, and Franklin was driving blind at 40 miles an hour with no headlights along a rural secondary road in Saline County, about halfway between Kansas City and his home in Columbia. Trailing Franklin's SUV were two troopers from the highway patrol.
The troopers would later testify that the SUV slowed to a near-stop as it rounded a curve by a bridge, only to accelerate and speed off again. While one trooper continued the pursuit, the other pulled over and searched the area. He found a red and white box in the middle of the road. Inside was a plastic bag stuffed with a pound-sized brick of marijuana.
A few minutes later, Franklin himself pulled over and was arrested.
The evidence against the 26-year-old was damning. Not only was his fingerprint found on the box tossed in the road, but the entire incident had only started because Franklin and the woman who had been at the wheel a few miles before, Kelly Johnson, had fallen for a fake drug checkpoint designed to bait traffickers ferrying merchandise from Kansas City.
The tactic involves police setting up signs telling motorists to prepare for a drug checkpoint – with drug-sniffing dogs – a quarter-mile down the road. But there's not really a checkpoint. The misleading warning signs are intentionally placed along remote stretches of Interstate 70, far removed from gas stations or convenience stores. The thinking goes: Unless you're a local, there's no reason to take that exit, and therefore troopers view cars making hurried exists off the highway with suspicion. From there, all it takes is a traffic violation to bring the trap down and initiate a search on the vehicle.
The troopers had pulled over the SUV for rolling a stop sign and sent the driver, Johnson, to a patrol car for interrogation. That's when Franklin eased from the passenger side of the SUV, jumped in the driver's seat and attempted his ill-fated escape.
Franklin was ultimately charged with felony possession of more than five grams of marijuana with intent to distribute. However, the jury also heard details of his arrest that weren't included in any formal criminal complaints. Notably, the troopers testified that Franklin's eight-month-old daughter had been in the SUV during the car chase, and that she was "not properly secured" in the back seat.
Franklin was in a bad spot. He was facing a B-level felony for drug distribution, an offense that can yield a five to fifteen-year sentence.
But Franklin wouldn't get five or even fifteen years. As he soon discovered, he was being judged on more than just one distribution charge. Extending back to 1999, Franklin's rap sheet included two past felony convictions for dealing cocaine and three felony convictions for cocaine possession; although he'd completed a short prison term and probation for those crimes, the county prosecutor deemed him a "prior and persistent drug offender."
The term isn't simply a wordy description of Franklin's criminal record. Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender, or PPDO, statute allows prosecutors to charge offenders with two or more felony drug convictions with extraordinarily harsh prison sentences. By law, Franklin's B-level felony for distribution was bumped up to an A-level felony – and that meant not only a minimum ten-year sentence, but also no possibility for parole.
After a jury found Franklin guilty in February 2008, the judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison. He remains there to this day. (His accomplice, Kelly Johnson, appears to have gotten off with probation or a suspended imposition of sentence. A search of Missouri court records reveals no indication that she was ever criminally charged.)
"I see people go home all the time," Franklin says during a brief phone call from prison. He says he's grown depressed and isolated while observing murderers and rapists pass through parole hearings. A former cellmate received drug treatment and got out on parole, then got sent back to prison on new charges, got paroled again, and now is back in prison for yet another stint. Franklin still has fourteen years to go. By the time he can even think about getting out of prison, that eight-month-old baby will be 23 years old.
"I can't even tell my story to nobody," he says. "That I've changed, that I'm not the same person I was when I came in here. I'm not even getting a chance to live a normal life. I've been punished, but the severity of the punishment don't fit the crime."
Franklin isn't alone. According to data from the Missouri Department of Corrections, 69 offenders are serving no-parole sentences for B-level drug distribution charges under the PPDO statute. In total, more than 140 people, most of them black, are currently locked up in Missouri prisons on no-parole sentences that in some cases equal – or even surpass – those for assault, murder or rape.
Defense attorneys and drug reform activists have long critiqued the imbalance between the PPDO statute's treatment of crime and punishment, and their cries have recently translated to legislative action. By 2017, the draconian PPDO statute will be gone, replaced by a far more reasonable policy.
But the repeal isn't retroactive. Franklin and the others will remain in prison until they complete their full sentences, victims of unfortunate timing that could cost them a full decade of their lives.
In fact, at present, only one offender sentenced under the PPDO statute has ever faced a parole board and walked free: a cause celebre named Jeffrey Mizanskey.