Daniel Nichanian

Eyes were glued on St. Louis County on Aug. 7, but another Missouri prosecutor was also ousted that same night. Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson was seeking a fourth term, but he lost in the Republican primary to Assistant State Attorney General Locke Thompson.

Cole County includes the state capital Jefferson City, so investigations pertaining to the Missouri government are often within its jurisdiction. In the waning months of Eric Greitens’s governorship in the spring, it fell on Richardson to decide whether to indict Greitens for filing a false campaign finance report. He chose not to, but Greitens resigned in the face of myriad scandals just two weeks later, a sequence of events that may have weighted down Richardson’s own re-election bid. Richardson’s attitude toward Greitens contrasts with his unusually aggressive prosecution of political protest: In 2016, he brought 23 clergy members to trial for staging a pro-Medicaid protest that interrupted legislative proceedings. Most of them were African American and were later pardoned by Governor Jay Nixon.

The defining fault line between Richardson and Thompson, however, was over how prosecutors handle drug-related offenses. “I’m vastly different to my opponent in this race because he does not believe in treatment courts or he’s very skeptical of their effectiveness,” Thompson said during the campaign. “If you just throw people in prison without treating them for drug addiction or a mental health issue, they’re three times more likely to come back out and re-engage in that activity,” he added. Thompson campaigned on using drug courts more frequently, steering cases toward rehabilitative and treatment programs, and also creating a new mental health court.

Richardson responded with “tough-on-crime” warnings. “Our courts should never be expected or forced by politicians to engage in ‘revolving-door, soft-on-crime’ measures that might threaten our right to live and prosper in a safe community just to keep our jail costs low,” he said. He applied this logic to drug cases specifically: “The addicted person became addicted through their own fault,” so “we cannot excuse the commission of crime because the person was trying to obtain property to feed their addiction.” Richardson defended his circumspection toward using treatment programs on the grounds that defendants frequently claim false addiction problems.

The News Tribune confirms that Richardson’s office aggressively prosecuted drug cases and rarely resorted to alternative programs: Nearly two-thirds of Cole County’s felony criminal cases in 2017 were drug cases, and just 15 of these 455 felony drug cases (3 percent) were processed through the Cole County Drug Court. But Richardson has been secretive about his approach to drug prosecution. A judge ruled last year that he had “knowingly and purposely” violated Missouri’s open records law by refusing to share drug case-related records requested by Aaron Malin, a researcher who has filed a series of other lawsuits against the opaqueness of Missouri agencies’ drug task forces.