Friday, September 18, 2015

Missouri Governor Commutes Prisoner for Marijuana-Related Crime

 A man from Missouri that was originally sentenced to life withUS News).  Jedd Mizanskey spent twenty-one years of his life in prison and on Tuesday, September first, he was set free.  Mizanksey's attorney, Dan Viets, claimed that Mizanksey was surrounded by "rapists, murderers and child molesters [who were released from] prison while he was sentenced to die behind bars for something that should not be a crime to begin with" (Huffington Post).  Mizanskey told reporters that he plans to spend the rest of his life advocating for the legalization of marijuana to avoid the "hell" that he went through behind bars.  
Mizanskey was arrested for conspiring "to sell six pounds of marijuana to a dealer connected with Mexican drug cartels" (The Guardian). At that time, a life with no parole sentence was legal under Missouri law for repeat drug offenders. Mizanskey already had two drug convictions – one for possession and sale of marijuana in 1984 and another for possession in 1991.  He was sentenced in 1996, which was the same year California became "the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes" (NCSL).  Medical marijuana is now legal in twenty-three states and recreational marijuana is legal in five states.  Such "extreme" cases could further fuel changing perceptions of nonviolent drug crimes, said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.  Just last year, the heavily Republican Missouri Legislature passed a law to allow certain people with epilepsy to seek treatment with a marijuana extract containing little of the chemical that causes users to feel high and larger amounts of a compound called cannabidiol, or CBD.

Jedd Mizanskey was the only inmate to serve such a long sentence for a crime that was nonviolent.  Democratic Gov.  Jay Nixon agreed in May to commute his sentence. The commutation allowed Mizanskey to argue for his freedom before a parole board, which granted the request in August.  Nixon's actions are "a reflection of political confidence in changing norms around marijuana use," said Cecelia Klingele, a criminal justice policy expert at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
The law under which he was originally sentenced has been changed.  Other states are re-evaluating punishments for drug possession, motivated in large part by the high cost of imprisoning low-level, nonviolent offenders.  In Connecticut, a "new law will make possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, a misdemeanor for a first-time offense, rather than an offense carrying up to seven years in prison" (The Big Story). "Nebraska and Alabama expect to save hundreds of millions of dollars by using new laws to cut down on the number of offenders locked up for possessing small amounts of drugs" (US News).
The power of a governor to commute a prisoner is highly controversial.  Should governors have the power to commute?  As mentioned above, his family and community welcomed Jedd with open arms, however, should the public view this as irrational?  In history, governors have been known to pardon or commute prisoners toward the end of their terms and usually these prisoners have a lot of money.  Does this make our government more corrupt?  Should other states be reevaluating their punishments for drug possession or are we simply becoming more lose with punishments for drug possession.  Connecticut is creating a new law that makes possession of small amounts of hard drugs like heroin a misdemeanor for a first-time offense.  If state legislatures ease penalties for drug possession will people think differently about harder drugs?  
Source of image: US News


Danny Halawi said...

Great post Juliana! Regarding your first question, I feel like governors should have the power to commute prisoners because in many cases points of views and laws change over time. Jedd Mizanskey was sentenced for life in 1996 for attempting to sell 6 pounds of marijuana. During this time, people looked down on marijuana and people had conservative points of views towards the drug, however, since 1996, 23 different states have legalized medical marijuana. Over time, the views on marijuana have changed. As time has passed, people have started to understand the drug and its effects and this knowledge has made people less fearing of it. Also, people have started to even approve the drug due to its potential in the medicinal world. Jedd Mizanskey was judged by people who were conservative towards marijuana; however, people now have different points of views after new knowledge and light has been shed on the drug, and it is only right for Jedd to be judged off these new points of views. If governors didn’t have the power to commute prisoners, then Jedd would have to spend an unreasonable amount of time in prison. This ultimately makes the power of the governor to commute justifiable. Regarding your question of, is it right for states to become looser on drug enforcement, and will people think differently of harder drugs if they do so. I believe that states should ease penalties. I believe that state penalties are too large for drug possessions, and consequently the states are simply spending too much money on prisoners who don't serve a huge threat to society. Will people think differently of drugs if penalties go down? Answering objectively, I think yes. When penalties go down people are going to start to think that drugs are becoming more accepted in society. People who take drugs will naturally to try to justify their actions if laws become more loose.

Adjon Tahiraj said...

I agree with Danny that governors should have the power to commute prisoners. As we have learned through history, people in the past did not make the greatest decisions/laws (ex: laws concerning slavery etc.) The conception of what's right is always changing as time goes by, I mean we can clearly see this with the current issues such as gay marriage. My point is that since times always change, a person should not be spending his entire life in prison for a crime that would never get the same sentence nowadays. But on the other hand it is a crime, and until it is officially changed, committing a crime is committing a crime so there has to be some sort of consequence for it, we just need to consider what those consequences are. In addition, if we are consistently only putting people in jail for 1-2 years for a crime that someone has been sentenced his whole life for, that persons sentence should be lowered to what people nowadays are getting. As for the second question i do think we need to loosen the restrictions on drugs, but still find a way to punish people, that doesn't send them to prison. Studies show that the United states has over 25% of prisoners in the entire world( and of those, over 50% are in prison for drug related charges( It takes a lot of money form the country to keep people in jail, and that money could better be spent in areas such as education and teaching kids about drugs and why they should not use them. And if we educate our youth well enough, lowering the sentences for drug charges and finding another way to punish people that does not include them going to jail, should not lead in higher use of drugs in the United States

Jonathan Liu said...

Personally, I see nothing wrong with the commutation power, at least not in this case. Although the governor did reduce the harshness of the sentence, I do not see it as an overruling of the judicial system because Mizansky was still required to argue for his parole before a parole board. If the parole board disagreed with the governor and believed that Mizansky still belonged in jail, then Mizansky would not have been granted his freedom, so the power obviously laid in more hands than just the governor's.

On the other hand, however, I still do not believe Mizansky should have been commuted. The way I see it, one explanation more valid than the one given is that the governor simply pitied him because Mizansky was the only one serving a life sentence in a Missouri jail (usnews). Under Missouri law, drug trafficking is an offense without parole (mosac), so the sentencing, especially for a repeat offender, is not surprising or particularly out of the ordinary. Law is written for a reason, and should not be made exceptions of without constitutional or other legal reasons.

Furthermore, I don't believe the changing national climate regarding drug use is a valid reason either. There's no arguing that the national climate is changing; as stated earlier, both medical and recreational marijuana have been legalized in many states. However, at the end of the day, Missouri is not one of them. It's that simple. Even if it's been legalized in some states, it hasn't been legalized in Missouri, which makes the commutation of his sentence for reasons of a changing national attitude seem to be an unsupported and invalid reason.

From this, I draw the conclusion that the commutation was granted simply out of pity. Or for some kind of publicity. Or perhaps, as mentioned in the post, there was some kind of monetary incentive? Who knows. For any of these reasons, I believe this case was an abuse of the commutation power, and should be viewed as irrational.

Disclaimer: I personally don't believe that he should be in there for life either. It's just that I also don't believe that my beliefs should influence the law.

Juliana Stahr said...

I am very interested to see how all three of you seem to accept the commutation power. I, unfortunately, have to disagree. I find this story to be extremely controversial. I do believe that the sentence for life is absolutely bogus, yet I do not think that a governor should have the power to simply remove one from prison. I find this case to be the best use of commutation because I do find this life sentence to be irrational. What irritates me most in regard to a governor commuting a prisoner, is that in most cases, the prisoner is almost always a person with money who donates a lot to a given political party. This simply gives too much power to a governor or president for that matter. This is why I find the commutation power to be completely corrupt. Jonathan, you said that you don't find this use of power to be "wrong in this case." Can you explain another case where you believe that the governor would be abusing this power? I find it interesting Danny that you want to ease penalties for a person in possession of drugs and you claim that people will think differently of drugs when these restrictions are eased. Won't this simply lead to more people being locked up for drugs? Adjon, I completely agree that states shouldn't be spending all their money to keep people in jail, but if we commute prisoners from drug crimes, will people think drugs are okay to use?