August 8, 2019

Federal Court Issues Order to Overhaul Missouri Parole Board’s Unconstitutional Treatment of Youthful Offenders

MISSOURI – A federal judge has issued declaratory and injunctive relief overhauling the Missouri Parole Board’s parole process for youthful offenders originally sentenced to mandatory life without parole sentences – a sentence deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 2012.

The extensive reforms come as a result of a class action lawsuit, Brown v. Precythe, filed by the MacArthur Justice Center, targeting the Parole Board’s demonstrated abuse of power, disregard for due process, and failure to comply with state and federal law when it comes to youthful offenders serving mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences.

“This is a significant and long-awaited victory,” said Missouri Director Amy E. Breihan. “Seven years after the Supreme Court invalidated these juvenile LWOP sentences, Missouri is finally being held accountable for providing impacted folks a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole prison terms for children based on its recognition that youth are inherently less culpable and more capable of rehabilitation. Missouri was one of several states that had been sentencing teens to die behind bars without any individualized consideration of their youth or ability to be rehabilitated. At first, it looked like the approximately one hundred people in Missouri serving these unconstitutional sentences would be resentenced in court, as was the case in many states across the country. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, denied resentencing hearings for Miller-impacted youthful offenders. Instead, the legislature relegated them to the Missouri Parole Board, making every youthful offender serving a mandatory LWOP sentence eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison.

Unfortunately, Missouri’s attempt to answer Miller via the parole process failed. The Missouri Parole Board treated JLWOP individuals with arbitrary and cruel practices, denying parole to over 85% of the people who had hearings and providing only boilerplate explanations for their decisions. Among many other problems, youthful offenders were denied access to the evidence against them and limited to one delegate who could accompany them to their hearing – often forcing a choice between an attorney and a family member. Most glaringly, in direct contravention of Miller, the Board failed to consider the prisoners’ youth at the time of the crime when denying parole. In October 2018, the judge ruled that the Missouri Department of Corrections practices were unconstitutional. Just last week, the Court issued a declaratory and injunctive relief order that detailed over 20 demands to the Missouri Parole Board for how to handle the process for individuals serving juvenile LWOP sentences.

The Order will enable prisoners to more effectively participate in hearings, including requiring full access to the records in their parole files, the right to bring multiple witnesses to a parole hearing, including an expert witness, the right to be represented by counsel at a critical pre-hearing interview, and, if represented, the right for your attorney to meaningfully advocate at the parole hearing. The Board will also be required to document reasons for their parole decision, and the evidence relied upon in reaching their decision.

The Order also changes how the Board will run hearings and make decisions for class members. Rather than being heard before a single Parole Board member, hearings will take place before 2-3 Board members. In addition, the Board cannot use risk assessment tools unless they are specifically tailored to the youthful offender class, because such tools may impermissibly hold the person’s youth at the time of the offense against them. The Court also took aim at the outright discrimination facing JLWOP prisoners, including prohibiting any impediments in programming participation based on JLWOP status.

“Perhaps the most important part of the Order,” said Breihan, “is that it prohibits the Parole Board from denying parole based solely on the seriousness of the offense, and requires them to make decisions through a youth-focused lens. Indeed, these decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children.”

The defendants are required to implement the changes as soon as possible. Class members previously denied parole will be granted the opportunity for a second hearing under the new policies and procedures. In the meantime, the Parole Board should be trained on how to conduct a meaningful parole process for youthful offenders: the Court’s order includes mandatory training to be developed by the Council of State Government.

“Our clients—each of whom was convicted of a crime as a kid and has grown up in adult prison over the past couple of decades– will finally have the opportunity to show that they have changed. Miller gave our clients hope, for the first time, that they might have a life outside of prison. Missouri’s sham parole process denied this hope for too long. This order promises to finally give them a chance,” said MJC attorney Megan Crane.

This is not the first lawsuit targeting the Missouri Parole Board. This is the same Parole Board that previously came under fire for misconduct when it came to light that parole staff were using hearings to play word games at inmates’ expense. This was made public by the MacArthur Justice Center. The MacArthur Justice Center is also pursuing two other lawsuits focused on youthful offenders, and recently secured summary judgment in a class action regarding the Board’s parole revocation process.

The lawsuit was filed October 31, 2017 in the Western District of Missouri Central Division. A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.

A copy of the Court’s order can be found here.