Old attitudes are going up in smoke with over half of American adults favoring legalization of marijuana, almost half of the states allowing sales for medicinal purposes, and four states having legalized pot for recreational use. However, old laws – and old prison sentences – regarding marijuana-related crimes are not changing as fast. The life sentence and misery of Jeff Mizanskey in Missouri has made him the poster boy for rethinking old sentences for pot crimes.
Mizanskey was admittedly a pothead in the 1990s. His third arrest for a pot-related crime in 1993 (possessing and intending to distribute five pounds of marijuana) came in a state with a three-strikes law (as in three strikes and someone does not get out). As a result, his shocking, harsh sentence was “life in prison without parole.”
Times and attitudes have changed. In the early 1990s, surveys showed the public favored strict sentencing for drug crimes. Today, though, less than one-third of Americans favor mandatory prison terms for those who commit nonviolent drug crimes. Even the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that they will stop prosecuting low-level drug offenses at the federal level. Throw in the strained budgets and overcrowding in prisons today and the issue seems ripe for review.
In Mizanskey’s situation, the Missouri law that put him in jail has since been scaled back, as have laws in many states. But, what happens to those nonviolent offenders in jail under old laws? Commenting on his archaic sentence, Mizanskey noted the he has spent one-third of his life in jail, but “they let people out with rapes and murders and child molestation.’
Billboards featuring Mizanskey appeared decrying his “Life for Pot?” sentence and urging the governor to take action. They are having an effect and could result in his release.
Resulting public outcry led Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to agree to take a fresh look at Mizanskey’s case. “If the laws change after someone is sentenced,” he noted, “then you want to give those things a close look.”
On Friday, Nixon took action and commuted Mizanskey’s sentence, which will provide him with a forthcoming parole hearing and a chance to plead his case for freedom after 22 years in prison. He is expected to get that parole hearing this summer.
Nixon reviewed some other cases as well. On Friday, he also pardoned five nonviolent offenders whom he believed had completed their sentences and turned their lives around.
Right now, approximately 80 percent of the 3,200 serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses in the U.S. were put in prison on drug offenses. According to the ACLU, 27 percent of all people behind bars in the U.S. are there for marijuana-related crimes.
The misery and story of Mizanskey in Missouri is making him the poster boy (literally) to promote the need for more review of pot crime sentences. Legal advocates are hoping that his plight and the plight of the more than 2,000 others serving life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes are addressed as more states allow legal use of the drugs that put some of those people in jail.
By Dyanne Weiss
Christian Science Monitor: How a Missouri ‘pothead’ became poster boy for compassion on drugs
Daily Mail: Victory for Missouri man, 62, famously serving LIFE in prison over ‘three strikes and out’ marijuana offenses as Governor commutes his sentence after 21 years in jail
Missourian: Missouri man serving life for marijuana offenses gets relief
Photo from Show-Me Cannabis