Missouri has the nation’s most incompetent clemency system. A bungling, secretive board of political hacks evaluates clemency petitions, and a Democratic governor runs from all clemency talk, perhaps because silly Republicans are trying to impeach him for wacky reasons such as letting married gay couples file joint tax returns.
This comic idiocy would be amusing if it didn’t have an identifiable victim: Jeffrey Mizanskey, one of the nation’s most obvious clemency candidates. Mizanskey is in his 21st year of a “three strikes you’re out” life without parole marijuana sentence. He was caught in a hotel room in 1993 supposedly buying a few pounds of pot. He had two other pot offenses, neither of which he’d done jail time for.
But, since today’s Willy Wonka legal system spits out prison terms based on formulas untouched by human judgment, this ordinary man — a 41-year-old construction worker with a red Firebird — gets recast as Inmate No. 521900 and must become a national cause célèbre to avoid dying in a Missouri prison over trivia.
Clemency is the obvious answer to this system’s failure.
Clemency has historically been used “to correct hard cases” and “to correct unduly severe sentences,” according to the National Center for State Courts. Missouri’s Constitution gives Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, unrestricted authority to release Mizanskey immediately. Yet Nixon, in office since 2009, has kept Mizanskey locked up. Why? He won’t say. When pressed by reporters on the case, Nixon talks about “a process in place to review all that” and his “executive authority vis-à-vis the folks in our district.” Huh? This empty talk reveals more than the governor intends.
The governor doesn’t have a process problem, vis-à-vis anything. The legislature assigned the Missouri Parole Board to make recommendations on clemency, but the governor doesn’t have to wait for a recommendation, follow a recommendation or even consult the board. His power is constitutional. And the Parole Board — entirely appointed by the governor — is a classic example of no-can-do government. It works in secret (by its choice), releases no information (by its choice) and is a dumping ground for former legislators in need of the salary, benefits and expense account. (The $83,000 salary is more than twice what state legislators are paid, so incumbent legislators quit for the honor of Parole Board work.)
Mizanskey, of course, has filed a clemency application. A lawyer has updated and expanded it. The problem isn’t process. It’s competence — governing competence. Nixon has 2,000 clemency petitions pending and has acted on just one, a death penalty case in 2011 involving dubious prosecutorial conduct. Even then, Nixon offered only fog to explain why he commuted the sentence from death to life.
Mizanskey’s son, Chris, is far more competent and articulate than the governor. He’s approaching 400,000 signatures on a change.org clemency petition for his father. “My dad is, and always has been, a good man,” writes Chris. U.S. Sen. Corey Booker, D-NJ, has signed and tweeted about the case. Journalists have done their job, especially the Riverfront Times andlocal television stations. Lawyers have done their job.
But why is so much work needed to correct such a mundane but obvious injustice? We’re not talking about nuance, cutting a five-year sentence, say, to four years. We’re in the third decade of a man in prison for doing something that’s legal in other states. The Missouri Compromise isn’t the only time the “Show-Me” state has been on the wrong side of history.
Gov. Jeremiah Wilson Nixon, descendant of a long line of politicians, deserves some empathy. He’s a career politician, first elected to office in 1986. It’s the only life he knows. The concerns of a blue-collar guy locked up forever for pot are a nuisance, not what he wants to care about. Don’t underestimate the cultural and class canyon between Mizanskey and Nixon. Listen to Mizanskey speak. This isn’t the type of person who attends fundraisers, attracting Nixon’s earnest attention when deciding how to distribute state power to make the world a better place.
What does the everyday life of a Jeff Mizanskey mean to the everyday life of Jay Nixon? Sadly, not much. But sad, too, in its own way, is a governor who strived his entire life for power to do good only to find himself unable — disabled, really — to do so once he acquired the gift. Instead, the governor cries out desperately for a process to protect him vis-à-vis something or other.
The wonderful photo at the start of this article is by Khoolod Eid and from the Riverfront Times.
Sign this change.org petition in support of Jeff.