THREE STRIKES

Life Sentence for Pot? Only if You’re Black

Clemency for drug offenders is a bittersweet turning of tides. It shows America’s shifting view on drugs, but a regressing outlook on race.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

After serving 21 years of his life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana crime, 62-year-old Jeff Mizanskey walked out of prison Tuesday a free man. In just two days, the video of his emotional exit garnered 3.5 million views and more than 26,000 comments.

Viewers praise his newfound freedom; in most, they attack his excessive punishment. “Spends 21 years in prison for selling weed BUT we have pedophiles out here getting 1yr sentences??” writes one. “Beyond disturbing,” adds another.

Mizanskey was charged in 1991 for conspiracy to sell 6 pounds of marijuana to a dealer linked with Mexican cartels, and sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). After two decades of pleas, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon commuted his sentence in May. Three months before, in another unprecedented move, President Obama granted clemency to Francis Darrell Hayden, who was sentenced to LWOP for conspiracy to grow and sell 18,000 marijuana plants.

The releases are unprecedented; the convictions, unfortunately, are not. There are at least 75 individuals serving life (or de facto life) for marijuana in America today. Many of them were caught with far less marijuana than Mizanskey or Hayden; most have little to no chance of getting out.

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According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there are approximately 3,278 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug crimes. Sixty-five percent of them are black. Louisiana has 429 prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, the highest number of any state; 91 percent of them are black.

For families of the loved ones still locked up, seeing the releases of Mizanskey and Hayden is likely bittersweet. Both men undoubtedly earned their freedom, but many others have too. While their release is a positive step forward for incarceration reform, it’s an odd one too. Their stories—two white men involved in sophisticated drug rings—obfuscate the reality of the Drug War landscape. Middle-aged, white, and wealthy are three words you don’t often find in discussions about the Drug War’s causalities. Young, black, and poor is the name of the game.

In the ACLU’s 2013 report, titled “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for NonViolent Offenders,” a number of inmates serving LWOP for marijuana are profiled. Many of the stories look like that of Fate Vincent Winslow, a homeless black man from Louisiana who’s serving a life sentence without parole for selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover cop. He said he did it in order to get something to eat. Winslow, who only had $5 on him when the cops arrived, carried out the deal with another white man—who was never charged.

A similarly tragic and underreported story is that of Dale Wayne Green, an African-American man serving a life sentence without parole for acting as a middleman in the sale of $20 worth of pot to an undercover deputy. Others, like Travis Bourda and Anthony Kelly, two more black men, are serving life for getting caught with large personal stashes—nearing 3 pounds.

There are white men included on the list, but they are decidedly on a different level. Leland Dodd is serving LWOP for conspiring to buy 50 pounds of marijuana off an undercover officer. William Dufries, also white, is serving LWOP for driving 67 pounds of marijuana through Oklahoma in an RV.

All of the things described are crimes, but none worthy of life imprisonment. But if the general public finds Mizanskey’s life sentence—for 6 pounds of marijuana—“disturbing,” they’ll likely be even more enraged by Green’s.

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Mizanskey understands the gravity and injustice of the situation more than most. One of the first things he uttered upon reaching the outside world was in reference to those he left behind. “I finally made it to freedom,” he tells a crowd outside the prison. “A lot of people in here deserve the same thing.”

Most, like Mizanskey, are the victims of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Introduced as a part of the Boggs Act of 1951 (and augmented by Ronald Reagan in 1986), the laws assign arbitrary sentences to certain offenses—many of them relating to drugs. Those who fall victim to habitual offender laws (“three strikes”) are often subject to mandatory minimums. In these cases, prosecutors are king. They decided whether or not to enhance sentences for individuals like Mizanskey or Green. If they do—assuming the crime is proven—judges are powerless to reduce the sentence, something they often lament in court.

“I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous. It is a travesty. I don’t have any discretion about it. I don’t agree with it, either,” Federal District Court Judge James R. Spencer told Landon Thompson, after sentencing him to LWOP for selling small amounts of crack cocaine. “I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

Even those running the prisons in which inmates like Mizanskey are held agree it’s ludicrous.

Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, expressed his views to the ACLU. “There’s an answer to this without being so extreme. But we’re still-living-20-years-ago extreme. Throw the human away. He’s worthless. Boom: up the river. And yet, he didn’t even kill anybody,” he says. “He didn’t do anything, but he just had an addiction he couldn’t control and he was trying to support it robbing. That’s terrible to rob people—I’ve been robbed, I hate it. I want something done to him. But not all his life. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, to me.”

Despite the egregiousness of cases like Green’s and Winslow’s, clemency—at least in the near future—seems out of reach. Hayden was sentenced by a federal court, and therefore eligible for presidential clemency; Mizanskey was pardoned by his governor.

Winslow and Green, prosecuted by the state of Louisana, would need the pardon of Governor Bobby Jindal, and given recent events, this seems unlikely. This summer, Jindal denied clemency to a prisoner serving a 13-year sentence for two joints of marijuana because he had “not yet served 10 years in prison.”

So while Mizanskey’s story is a triumphant one, it’s bittersweet too. It’s a reminder of how many other people are serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana violations—and how far they are from that walk to freedom. At the ends of his release video, he expresses his desire to help others locked up for marijuana win freedom.

Once more, before heading to lunch at a local Missouri grill, Mizanskey pays tribute to those he left behind: “There’s a lot of good people in here that need to come out.”

Correction 9/4/15 10:30 AM: A previous version of this article stated that Ronald Reagan introduced mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In fact, the laws were enacted with Congress's passing of the Boggs Act of 1951. Reagan added new mandatory minimum sentences in 1986.