TARGET 8 Fact Check: Only 4% of jail inmates held on marijuana charges

10 months 3 weeks 2 days ago Tuesday, April 24 2018 Apr 24, 2018 Tuesday, April 24, 2018 8:19:00 PM CDT April 24, 2018 in Top Stories
By: Chris Joseph, KOMU 8 Reporter
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COLUMBIA - A TARGET 8 fact check finds mid-Missouri county jails do not hold inmates charged with marijuana-related offenses in large numbers, despite some public opinion. 

Inmate rosters from the surrounding area showed very few inmates were being held on marijuana charges exclusively. Most charged with a marijuana-related offense had other aggravating charges. 

Public misconception of the situation

TARGET 8 decided to investigate after some expert and public opinion conflicted on the nature of the situation. 

In February, TARGET 8 published an investigation into Missouri's debt to its county jails. The story broke down why and how growing inmate populations are costing the state more money. 

As a result of the story, Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism and some KOMU 8 viewers shared different views on the idea of marijuana users filling jails.   

In a February interview related to the jail debt story, Chism told TARGET 8, "There is a misperception that our jail and many county jails are full of misdemeanor offenders, that is the furthest from the truth as it can be."

When KOMU published the story on its Facebook page later that month, there was a debate in the comment section on that issue. 

William Mountain commented, "Legalize marijuana and do away with a lot of those inmates while creating a larger tax base..seems like a no brainer to me.."

James Stodgell agreed with Mountain and commented in part, "Here's an idea: stop putting people in jail for victimless crimes..."

Tom Kridel cited a PolitiFact article and commented, "So legalize it. Just don't expect it to result in smaller prison populations..."

Here are the numbers

TARGET 8 collected the inmate rosters of the surrounding county jails over a period of two weeks. We used snapshot data, meaning random days were analyzed. In our analysis, the definition of a marijuana charge includes possession, delivery, distribution, misdemeanor and felony charges. 

As of the days the rosters were accessed, there were 700 inmates in 10 local county jails. 30 inmates faced marijuana charges.

Only eight of those inmates were held for a marijuana charge exclusively. 

All the inmates charged with a marijuana offense were held for a total of 1,165 days, or an average of 39 days per inmate. However, most of those inmates were held for under two weeks.

Inmates facing only a marijuana charge had been held in jail for a total of 85 days, or an average of 11 days per inmate.    

On April 4 (the day TARGET 8 accessed records for a sampling), we examined court documents of people arrested on drug charges and found the Boone County Jail had seven inmates who were arrested in possession of marijuana. 

But none of them were charged for possession of marijuana. Their charges included domestic assault, possession of meth and possession of heroin, among others. 

Howard, Cooper and Monroe county jails had zero inmates held for marijuana-related charges on the days TARGET 8 accessed their inmate rosters. 

Osage County held the most marijuana-related inmates per capita, with four out of the 19 inmates held on the day we accessed data in that county (March 21).

All four of those inmates were also charged with delivery of a controlled substance.

You can find the full breakdown of the inmate rosters here, complete with names, charges and dates of incarceration. 

Missouri law usually punishes casual smokers with fines

Casual smokers likely face misdemeanors if arrested. Here's a break down of maximum fines and sentences for misdemeanors in Missouri:

  • Possession up to 10 grams (1st offense): No incarceration, max $500 fine
  • Possession up to 10 grams (2nd offense): Max incarceration one year, max $2,000 fine
  • Possession 10-35 grams: Max incarceration one year, max $2,000 fine

Local prosecuting attorneys said they usually opt for fines, probation and/or supervision for misdemeanors.

Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jennifer Rodewald said most marijuana misdemeanor offenders in the county are released with a ticket and a court date.

"I don't think I've ever recommended jail time on a straight-up simple possession of misdemeanor marijuana," she said. 

Rodewald said even if it's a repeat offender, her office would likely only increase the fine. 

Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Fusselman said his office has a similar approach. 

"We realize a lot of these kids may want to go to college some day or want some form of employment where this type of conviction could impact them," he said. 

Fusselman said his Randolph county often uses an 'SIS', which stands for 'suspended imposition of sentence.' Misdemeanor offenders can have their record cleared if they go a court-appointed amount of time without an arrest. 

In Missouri, distribution of marijuana carries a felony charge. Felony offenders could face three years to life in prison depending on the amount, location and nature of the distribution.

Both prosecuting attorneys said marijuana felonies would likely carry jail or prison time if charged. 

"Special interests" and legalization going forward

Chism told TARGET 8 in February, and then again in April, "special interests" were spreading misinformation about marijuana in the area.

He was unable to give the name of a specific group. 

There are two marijuana advocacy groups actively working in mid-Missouri to put medicinal marijuana on the ballot this November.

Mid-Missouri NORML, its allies, and the Bradshaw Amendment are working to get two different versions of the medicinal marijuana question in front of voters.

Mid-Missouri NORML communications director and civil rights lawyer Dan Viets said jail time is a topic of discussion in his group's advocacy.

"Many, many times people who are clearly in legitimate need of marijuana as medicine are prosecuted as people who have no medical need," he said. 

When TARGET 8 presented Viets with its inmate roster findings, he said he was glad the number was low, but added the majority of the convicted marijuana users are in a Department of Corrections prison. 

"Most people charged with felonies have bonded out of jail, people who are in jail are poor people, for the most part," Viets said.  "They are people who can't afford to post bond."

He said when offenders fail a drug test on probation, they are often sent to state prison. They don't end up in jail. 

New Approach Missouri is an ally of NORML and is working on the same ballot measure. Spokesman Jack Cardetti said marijuana justice system issues are not something the group normally talks about.

"Ours is a medical issue, what we believe is you as a patient ought to be able to walk into the doctor's office and have a real open and honest conversation," he said.

Both Viets and Cardetti said their groups would get the signatures needed to put medicinal marijuana on the ballot.  

The Bradshaw Amendment did not return a request for comment. 

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