The recent story of Jeff Mizanskey has been making headline news. Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison under Missouri’s “prior and persistent drug offender” law. Similar to other states three-strike laws, a judge in Missouri is permitted to hand down life sentences for third-time felons, regardless of whether to crime was violent in nature.
Mizanskey has now spent 21 years in prison, with 3 failed parole attempts and a clemency request not yet granted. His crime? He was present in a hotel room while an acquaintance bought 7 pounds of marijuana from police informants. This was Mizanskey’s third drug offense, with two prior convictions for possession of 35 grams of marijuana.
In fact, Mizanskey is not alone. LifeforPot.org lists 25 other people serving life sentences for non-violent marijuana related offenses (and many others for other non-violent offenses.) However, half of the states, including Missouri, now allow for medical marijuana and 2 states allow for recreational use. The latest polls show that the majority of Americans favor legalization of marijuana.
So the question stands, should people like Mizanskey be spending the rest of their life in prison for crimes that would carry a few years of incarnation, if any, today? Unfortunately, a majority of the states still have some version of the three strikes law.
Previously, California was thought to have the most severe three strikes law in the nation. Until recently, a person convicted of nonviolent felonies, such as drug possession could, and often did, receive a prison term of 25-years to life for a third felony. However, in 2000, California began to relax the penalties when voters passed Proposition 36. Instead of drug possession carrying a possible 25 years to life, Proposition 36 allowed for the possibility of drug treatment.
More recently in 2012, a new version of the law mandates that a life sentence can only be imposed if the 3rd felony is serious or violent. Fortunately, the law is retroactive and allows for possible re-sentencing for those previously convicted of a non-serious or non-violent crime on their 3rd strike. This has resulted in California releasing many of these prisoners, relieving the huge problem of over-population in the state.
States implement three strike laws to ensure that repeat offenders are constantly imprisoned. The logic is that while a criminal is in prison he or she can’t be out in public hurting anyone. However, how do these laws apply to people like Mizanskey, who has never been charged with a violent offense? The answer is that they don’t. Unlike California, Missouri is not letting out people like Mizanskey. It appears likely, that despite his declining health and the 20 years he has already served, he will remain in prison until he dies.
Many laws have been challenged as an unconstitutional violation of the Eight Amendment, which protects a person from cruel and unusual punishment. However the high courts have upheld the laws, even when applied to minor felonies, such as marijuana possession. Therefore, at this time, the states are free to continue passing versions of the three-strike law and, despite public outcry, they have unlimited discretion as to the severity of the law. Unfortunately, this means that people like Mizanskey are not legally entitled to relief.
Three strikes laws will continued to be challenged, often times beginning with a single defendant’s appeal of their conviction. LegalMatch.com connects experienced criminal law attorneys with clients. Also check out the thousands of legal articles and blogs on their site, as they provide up-to-date information on criminal law trends, as well as many other areas of law.