A Missouri man sentenced to life without parole based on marijuana convictions is free today after 21 years in prison.
Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced as a “prior and persistent offender” in 1994 when “he was found taking part in the purchase of several pounds of marijuana,” according to KOMU. Mizanskey was convicted of possessing more than 35 grams of marijuana in 1984 and 1991 as well.
Based on harsher drug laws passed during the 1980s and 1990s, Mizanskey received a sentence of life without parole in a Missouri prison.
Now, however, the statute that Missouri convicted him under will be repealed in January 2017. In May, Governor Jay Nixon commuted Mizanskey’s sentence after an online petition by Mizanskey’s son, Chris, and an initiative from Show-Me Cannabis that used billboards along Missouri highways, brought attention to Mizanskey’s imprisonment.
Mizanskey isn’t the only prisoner who faced life without parole based on drug charges. Sharanda Jones, a Texas woman, was convicted in 1999 of a single, non-violent drug offense. It was her first time under arrest. She remains imprisoned.
The American Civil Liberties Union has covered the imprisonment of non-violent offenders extensively in a 2013 report.
In 19 states and under federal law, non-violent offenders convicted under “habitual offender laws” permit life-without-parole sentences. The ACLU estimates that eliminating LWOP sentences for non-violent offenders who are currently imprisoned could save Missouri about $600,000 if those offenders served the typical length of time without a LWOP sentence. In other states, such as Louisiana, savings could be $130 million.
Generally, LWOP prisoners are “first-time drug offenders or non-violent repeat offenders.” As of 2012, 3,278 prisoners are serving sentences under LWOP throughout the United States. Most of them, almost two-thirds, serve in the federal system, where parole was eliminated in 1984.
Parsing the definitions of non-violent drug offenders can be tricky, and prisoners convicted under drug charges are by no means the majority of prisoners in the United States. Best estimates place drug offenders as 20 percent of the total population, though they make up a plurality of federal prisoners.
As public opinion becomes more open to drug legalization and criminal justice reform, the example of Missouri’s commutation for Jeff Mizanskey and repeal of the law he was sentenced under is a promising sign that criminal justice is becoming more effective at securing public safety without arbitrary punitive action.