JEFFERSON CITY — When Jeff Mizanskey was first sentenced to life without parole in 1994 under a three-strikes drug law and put in prison, he said there were a few guys in wheelchairs who he’d see every now and then. By the time he was released about five years ago, that had changed.
“When you’d go to the chow hall, you’d see 25 to 30 wheelchairs and other inmates pushing them so they could go get something to eat,” Mizanskey said.
His story is indicative of Missouri’s aging prison population, which has nearly doubled since 2005, according to previous Missourian reporting. The number of people aged 50 or older in prisons was increasing at 11 times the rate of the overall Missouri prison population in 2017.
A bill being considered by state lawmakers would allow incarcerated individuals aged 65 or older, who have been sentenced to life without parole for “a minimum of 50 years or more,” to receive a parole hearing after they have served at least 30 years of their sentence. The proposed measure garnered strong support at a House Special Committee on Criminal Justice hearing Thursday.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles, has some stipulations, including one measure that an eligible prisoner can’t have a felony conviction prior to the conviction for which they are currently incarcerated.
Hannegan, whose repeatedly proposed bill was passed by the House last year and died in the Senate, said HB 2034 would be a tool to allow people without other alternatives to have their cases reopened and considered for parole.
“It’s not an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card by any means,” Hannegan said. “What it would allow this particular group to do is go before the parole board and just have a hearing.”
He emphasized that the bill would only make a small number of people eligible for parole and said it still gives the parole board the final say on outcomes.
“If the parole board thinks that these people should not be released for whatever reason, then they don’t get released,” Hannegan said.
He acknowledged that individuals convicted of felony murder could be eligible for parole under this bill, assuming they had not also been convicted of a prior felony. But he added that to be allowed to go through the parole process, prisoners must have an exit strategy with a support system of some kind, as well as pass a psychiatric evaluation.
John Ammann, a professor at Saint Louis University’s Legal Clinics, voiced support for the bill. He pointed out that the bill’s fiscal note includes estimates for the number of prisoners who would become eligible under the proposed legislation. In 2021, the bill would affect 21 prisoners. By 2030, an estimated 57 prisoners could be eligible for a parole hearing.
Ammann also said the bill would help address the rising cost of health care in prisons for elderly prisoners.
“There’s no need for the Department of Corrections to become the biggest nursing home in the state,” Ammann said. “We’re dealing with an aging population with very acute, complicated medical problems as people age. This bill helps give you some flexibility to address that by saying, ‘Serve 30 years, and we’ll take a look at the circumstances.’”
Mizanskey shared his experiences as he testified in support of the bill. He told the committee about his memories of elderly prisoners who were looked after and pushed around in their wheelchairs by other inmates who did not have any medical training.
He described the practice as cruel and unjust and went on to say that Missourians are very aware of the cost of keeping older prisoners behind bars.
“We’re not dumb out there. We know what’s going on. We know our taxes are being spent to keep these guys in prison that can’t even walk to the bathroom in some cases,” Mizanskey said. “That’s something that we can get away from.”
Missouri is not the first state to consider this law.
“There are 27 other states who have a definition of what an ‘older’ prisoner is for the purposes of compassionate release,” said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, who also voiced support for the bill.
Although the age different states consider “older” varies from 50 to 70, Baker said 50 is used most commonly (by 15 states), 65 is used by two states and 70 is only used by one. With this in mind, she said the measure was still a conservative approach.
She also said that the recidivism rate, how common it is for those previously convicted to reoffend, for people over age 60 is “pretty much nothing,” while it costs three times more to incarcerate someone who is over the age of 50 than it does to incarcerate someone younger.
No one testified in opposition to the bill, but Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, expressed concerns about the plight of victims and their families, who might be forced to relive past pain as the parole process plays out.
“I’m still struggling with the idea that our focus is not on victim,” Roberts said. “I’ve been to parole hearings and watched victims have to go through it all again, and it’s not a pleasant process. ... But I do appreciate the kindheartedness that this bill represents.”
The organizations Empower Missouri and the Missouri Catholic Conference also testified in support of the bill, as did former Missouri representative and senator Franc Flotron.