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November 29, 2019

The “Next Era of Reform” is Now


 

In a recent op-ed in Time, Governor Mike Parson encouraged criminal justice reformers to expand their focus beyond prisons. “[A]ddressing challenges with probation and parole,” he and Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz wrote, “could serve as the centerpiece to our nation’s next era of reform.”

 

Governor Parson is correct that parole supervision is in need of reform—both nationally and particularly right here in the Show Me State. Missouri ranks eighth in the nation for its large state prison population, according to a report earlier this year by U.S. News. The revolving door of Missouri’s broken parole system is one major reason why. Missouri’s incarceration rate stands out internationally, and, as Governor Parson’s op-ed notes, more than half of new admissions to Missouri prisons are due to supervision violations.

Parole may not be not prison, but make no mistake: it is another manifestation of the carceral state.

It chains people to the criminal justice system with a confusing web of requirements and restrictions, and harshly punishes anyone who slips up.

Parole terms are unnecessarily long and the default response to non-compliance is, unproductively, reincarceration. To address these issues, periods of supervision should be shortened, and parole staff should incorporate more restorative alternatives to alleged violations. For example, parole officers can respond to minor violations by requiring community service or participation in a treatment program, rather than revoking someone’s parole and sending them back to prison. Graduated sanctions like these have a proven track record of success in other states. Sadly, rather than ensuring public safety, or facilitating rehabilitation, parole in its current form has a devastating impact on our communities.

Over two years ago, with the assistance of the MacArthur Justice Center, a group of parolees filed a class action lawsuit to repair that system: Gasca v Precythe. The lessons learned through that litigation are striking. Over 6,600 Missourians face re-incarceration every year due to alleged violations of parole. In the majority of those cases, a person is accused and incarcerated once again because of a technical violation—like missing an appointment with their parole officer or being late to register a new address after a move—not because they committed a new crime. When people are picked up for parole violations, they are not adequately advised of the reasons they are being detained, what evidence the state has against them, or what constitutional rights they have in the process.

To the extent any process exists, people are regularly encouraged to forego that process with a promise that things will move faster, suggesting they will go home sooner. Unfortunately, the reality is that parole is revoked in approximately 90% of cases, and most people end up sitting in jail or prison for quite a long time, even if their parole is ultimately continued.

Perhaps most shockingly, while parolees are entitled to be evaluated and provided counsel if necessary, the Department of Corrections has admitted it was not screening for or providing state-funded attorneys to any parolees, even those with mental health or other issues that prevent them from understanding what is happening to them.

Take, for example, Stephanie Gasca, the lead plaintiff in the aforementioned class action. Stephanie was eight months pregnant when she was arrested for a technical violation.

 

She was told that the process would go faster if she waived her hearings, and maybe she could have her baby in the community. She waived her hearings. But she still gave birth behind bars.

She was incarcerated for 227 days, even though she hadn’t even broken the law.

Sadly, Stephanie’s story is not unique. Hundreds upon hundreds of Missourians are incarcerated every year on technical violations. While they linger in jail or prison waiting for resolution, they lose their jobs, their housing, and their families.

None of these constitutional violations are contested. The State admitted all of them in public documents filed in federal court almost a year ago. The federal court agreed, granting summary judgment to the Gasca class of plaintiffs, which includes the thousands of Missourians currently on parole, both those who are out on community supervision and the far too many who are still sitting behind bars. Nonetheless, Missouri has not fixed this broken system. That is why we have an emergency hearing in federal court next month: we are asking the Court to force Missouri to do the right thing and restore constitutional rights to its thousands of parolees.

We share Governor Parson’s concern and join in his call to action. Unfortunately, this State’s Attorney General does not appear to share our concerns. To this day, the Attorney General is fighting us and refusing to fully remedy the Department of Corrections’ numerous admitted constitutional violations.

As a result, hundreds of Missourians suffer blatant disregard for their rights and an unconstitutional loss of liberty every day.

The good news is that, despite the Attorney General’s obstinance, there is still much that can be done. And Governor Parson is uniquely well-positioned to fix many of the systemic problems with Missouri’s system of probation and parole.

For example, Governor Parson can fill the two vacant seats on the state’s parole board with professionals with expertise in rehabilitative or social services, rather than only law enforcement. He can encourage the parole board to implement a system of graduated sanctions in response to alleged parole violations to keep people out of prison, and to grant early discharge so people can get off parole supervision and fully integrate back into their communities. Governor Parson can call on the legislature to increase funding so the Department of Corrections has no excuse for not providing attorneys to parolees how need legal representation.

 

He can make clear to the Department of Corrections and parole board that they should prioritize alternatives to incarceration for alleged parole violations, because there is simply no need—and no excuse—for people to spend a single day in prison, much less months in prison, for missing an appointment or failing to fill out a form.

And he can call on the Attorney General to cooperate with plaintiffs in Gasca, so that Missouri taxpayers do not have to pay for pointless litigation that only further harms countless Missourians.

We need not wait for parole to become the “centerpiece to our nation’s next era of reform.” The next era of reform is now, and it is here, in Missouri.

Takeaways

  • Over 6,600

  • Tricked or pressured

  • Denied their rights