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article imageNo pardon for Missouri prisoner serving life sentence for pot

By Megan Hamilton     Jan 11, 2015 in Crime
Sedalia - Every day for over 20 years, Jeff Mizanskey, a nonviolent offender, has been staring at the same prison walls, a victim of Missouri's stringent three strikes' law that has since been repealed.
Last month, Governor Jay Nixon declined to pardon Mizanskey.
He is now serving life without parole at Jefferson City Correctional Center, High Times reports.
Mizanskey, 61, was first arrested in 1993 for possession of five pounds of marijuana. The possession with intent to distribute charge normally carries a 10-year sentence, but Mizanskey was sentenced to life because this was his third conviction. He'd been arrested in 1984 and charged with selling an ounce of pot, and in 1991 he was collared for possession of over 35 grams. Every one of his crimes were non-violent marijuana offenses, but under Missouri's stringent prior and persistent drug offender law, none of this mattered.
For reasons that aren't clear, Nixon declined to pardon Mizanskey, and this has gained a good deal of attention from the media and organizations like NORML and Show-Me Cannabis, said Dan Viets, of NORML's Missouri branch. Activists from the organizations have shown their support for releasing Mizanskey by conducting a billboard campaign throughout Missouri and have obtained commitments to pardon Mizanskey from all 2016 Missouri gubernatorial candidates, High Times reports.
As part of the Missouri Bar committee,Viets was also instrumental in the redrafting of the state criminal code that repealed the three strikes law. Theoretically, this makes pardoning Mizanskey a simpler political decision for Nixon or any subsequent Missouri governor.
Ironically, Nixon has a rather personal connection to marijuana laws and the penal system. His son Will was busted on misdemeanor marijuana possession in late 2011. Although he was caught with pot, the charges were dropped due to "lack of evidence," High Times reports.
An epidemic of inmates
There is an arguably far larger problem in all of this, however, involving thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of prisoners just like Mizanskey.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2009, there were 1,524,513 prisoners in state and federal prisons, reports. Toss in local jails and the number zips to 2,284,913. Not only are the numbers staggering, they are far higher than those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms. Calculations conducted by The International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London show that the U.S. has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, compared to 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and lastly, 32 in India.
America's huge incarceration rate is a relatively new phenomenon. A 2010 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that rates of incarceration between 1880 and 1970 ranged between 100 and 200 prisoners per 100,000, per After 1980, the inmate population began to escalate rapidly, much more so than the overall population in the U.S. and climbed from about 220 per 100,000 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.
Why are U.S. incarceration rates so high?
One explanation might be that the rising incarceration rates match a commensurate rise in crime. Statistics belie this, however. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the BJS shows that the total number of violent crimes was only about three percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, reports. Violent crime rates were considerably lower, with 19 per 1,000 people in 2008, compared to 49.4 in 1980. Property crimes also dropped to 134.7 per 1,000 people in 2008, and that's down from 496.1 in 1980, data from the BJS reports.
Changes in correctional policies that determine who winds up in prison and for how long has spurred the growth in the prison population, reports.
So where does a guy like Jeff Mizanskey fit in to all of this?
In the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted, and this played a big role in the changes. The CEPR study reports that more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population is comprised of nonviolent offenders. Now, guys just like Mizanskey — nonviolent offenders — make up about one-fourth of all inmates, a jump from 1980 when the number was less than 10 percent.
The infamous "three strikes" bills that were adopted by so many states in the 1990s account for much of the huge increases, reports. These laws require state courts to implement mandatory and extended periods of imprisonment to people convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. Even such relatively minor crimes as shoplifting are included in this.
Corresponding to this enormous uptick in prison populations are the costs of keeping people incarcerated. In the last two decades, state correctional spending has quadrupled in nominal terms and now totals $52 billion per year, eating up one out of 14 general fund dollars, reports. Spending on corrections is the second fastest growing area of state budgets, right behind Medicaid. A 2009 report from the Pew Center on the States reported that it costs on average $78.95 per day to keep an inmate locked up. That's more than 20 times the cost of a day on probation.
Missourians may want to consider this every time Nixon denies pardon to a nonviolent offender like Jeff Mizanskey.
Near the end of 1993, Mizanskey and his friend Atilano Quintana drove to a motel for what Mizanskey claims was a job moving furniture. Once they got to the motel room, Quintana tried to purchase marijuana from two friends, The Raw Story reports. What he and Quintana didn't know was that the friends had been arrested in a sting operation the day before. So now Quintana and Mizanskey were arrested for alleged possession with intent, even though surveillance video shows Quintana making the purchase and Mizanskey repeatedly saying he was unaware of Quintana's intent.
Mizansky's son Chris lives in Sedalia and misses his dad and wants to see him come home.
"What's happened to him isn't right, and I just think people should know that this happens," he told The River Front Times. "My dad wasn't a violent man. People always tell me what a good guy he was. He worked hard. He doesn't deserve this. Who does?"
Mizanskey has filed appeals or depended on public defenders whom the Times reports are overworked, but his family hasn't been able to afford private counsel. Unsurprisingly, the appeals have gone nowhere. In the hopes of bringing his dad home, Chris Mizanskey has written a petition urging Nixon to grant clemency. So far, at least 115,000 people have signed the petition.
Jeff Mizanskey may spend the rest of his life in prison, and this is truly sad, especially when one considers the fact that several states have loosened their pot laws and even made it legal in some cases. St. Louis, for instance, has decriminalized the possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana, per the Times.
So perhaps it's time for Governor Nixon to pay attention.
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