By Vanita Gupta
Editor’s note: CNN’s David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront. Vanita Gupta is a deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the organization’s Center for Justice. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Vanita Gupta.
(CNN) — Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri’s three strikes law.
The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey’s is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us.
This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We’ve spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey’s marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences.
And Mizanskey is hardly the only one.
Just as he fell into the abyss of our nation’s failed drug policies and excessive sentencing laws, millions more have sat in jails and prisons, often for years, even decades on end, for low-level drug and property offenses.