Pubdate: Sat, 23 May 2015
Source: Christian Science Monitor (US)
Copyright: 2015 The Christian Science Publishing Society
Author: Patrik Jonhsson


Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has commuted Jeff Mizanskey's life sentence for 
marijuana offenses, allowing him a parole hearing - an indication of the 
public and political shift on draconian drug laws.

ATLANTA - Back in the day, Jeff Mizanskey was a bit of a pothead, at 
least that's how the police in Sedalia, Mo., knew him. The third time 
Mr. Mizanskey got busted for weed - during a 1993 sting at a Super 8 
motel - he lost his case at trial and received a mind-boggling 
punishment: Life in prison, with no chance of getting out.

In a major sign that US governors have joined the larger public in 
questioning the wisdom of draconian drug laws, Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday 
commuted Mr. Mizanskey's sentence, allowing him a parole hearing to 
plead his case for freedom. He has a good shot of getting out, given 
that his only foul-ups during his 22 years in prison were putting mail 
in the wrong slot and having a messy cell floor.

It's well-documented that the public mood has shifted dramatically on 
the topic of pot, with well over half of Americans now favoring its 
legalization. Meanwhile, four states have approved recreational 
marijuana, and 23 allow medical marijuana. President Obama has pardoned 
nonviolent drug offenders, and the US Justice Department has vowed to 
stop prosecuting low-level drug offenders at the federal level.
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But that shift in thinking has left governors like Mr. Nixon in a 
quandary. What happens to nonviolent offenders serving major sentences 
for crimes around which the law has changed? Most specifically, the 
tough three-strikes-and-you're-out law that took parole off the table 
for Mizanskey has been scaled back by the Missouri legislature.
Test your knowledgeHow much do you know about marijuana? Take the quiz
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"It's a very serious amount of time," Mr. Nixon told KMBC in February 
after agreeing to take a look at Mizanskey's situation. "If the laws 
change after someone is sentenced, then you want to give those things a 
close look."

The year before Mizanskey was busted for his minor role in a trafficking 
deal, Pew found that 73 percent of Americans favored the death penalty 
for "major drug traffickers," and 57 percent believed police should be 
able to search houses of "known drug dealers" without a search warrant. 
Today, only 32 percent of Americans favor mandatory prison sentences for 
nonviolent drug offenders.

That attitude shift has begun to dovetail with strained prison budgets 
to force the issue in front of governors and lawmakers.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said as early as last year that 
legalizing marijuana in his state was a "mistake." But last month, Mr. 
Hickenlooper agreed that legalization had begun to have positive 
financial impact on his state, with few of the feared drawbacks.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a limited medical marijuana bill 
that would allow people with a specific set of ailments to receive 
non-psychoactive marijuana oil. Gov. Deal has also led a major criminal 
justice reform system aimed at giving judges more leeway to allow 
nonviolent drug offenders to get treatment rather than automatically 
send them to jail.

And in a widely circulated column in the Dallas Morning News, Republican 
state representative David Simpson recently used Scripture to argue for 
prohibition repeal in the Lone Star State.

"Should we be concerned for our friends and neighbors who abuse a 
substance or activity?" Mr. Simpson wrote. "Yes, we should help them 
through sincere and voluntary engagement, but not with force and violence."

To be sure, Mizanskey, to some, remains a hazard to society, who 
deserves to die behind bars. For one, Jeff Mittelhauser, who prosecuted 
the case, told the Riverfront Times he didn't think the sentence was too 

"Considering his numerous prior convictions involving the distribution 
of controlled substances and considering that he had a connection to . 
the Southwest United States to bring in 100 pounds a week of marijuana 
to distribute, yes, I believe his sentence was a fair one," Mr. 
Mittelhauser told the paper in 2013. Mizanskey, for the record, was 
convicted for possessing and intending to distribute five pounds of 
marijuana. He was never indicted for conspiracy to distribute more than 

Nevertheless, while much of the legalization focus has been on states 
like Colorado, where pot tourism is now a hot topic, the plight of 
thousands of Americans serving long sentences for marijuana crimes has 
given legalization advocates room to address the steep human cost of 
marijuana prohibition.

About 80 percent of the 3,200 nonviolent offenders serving life 
sentences in the US are in prison on drug offenses, and 27 percent of 
all prisoners in the US are behind bars for marijuana offenses, 
according to an ACLU report. The US Sentencing Commission has reported 
that convicted drug traffickers spend an average of 34 months in prison.

"While prohibitionists like to claim that advocates only care about 
getting high or are all about making money with a new industry, the case 
of Jeff Mizanskey demonstrates . the compassion at the heart of our 
fight," writes legalization advocate Anthony Johnson on

Mizanskey's case had been largely forgotten except by his family when 
the Riverfront Times in 2013 did a long story about the construction 
worker, detailing his recreational use of marijuana and his occasional 
small-time sales to support his own habit.

His case was picked up by Show-Me Marijuana, a Missouri legalization 
group, which created a poster aimed at bringing attention to Mizanskey's 
plight. His son, Chris Mizanskey, who was 13 when his dad went to jail, 
also began to lobby actively for his father's release. Since going to 
prison, Mizanskey has become a foreman of the furniture factory at 
Jefferson City Correctional Center, making 73 cents an hour.

"My dad is, and always has been, a good man," Chris writes on a petition page. "He taught my brother and I all about 
construction and a good work ethic. He has never been violent and he is 
a model prisoner. And over the 20 years he has been in that little cell, 
he has watched as violent criminals, rapists and murderers have `paid 
their debts' and left - sometimes just to return a few months later.

"My father is 61 years old, and has been in prison since he was 41," he 
continues. "His parents - my grandparents - have since passed. While my 
dad has been trapped behind bars . kids and grandkids have been born 
into our family who have never even met the man.. All my dad wants to do 
is be a productive part of society, work, and pay taxes, be with his 
family. And I want my dad back."

Before Friday, that seemed out of the question. On Saturday, friends 
began raising money to help Jeff Mizanskey transition out of prison and 
into a second chance at life. He's expected to get his parole hearing 
this summer.
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