November 13, 2020

Federal Court Orders Overhaul of Missouri Parole Revocation Process

Two dozen mandated reforms empower parolees subject to imprisonment and include requiring the Department of Corrections to appoint state-funded attorneys to eligible parolees

MISSOURI – A federal court has issued an order mandating over two dozen reforms required by the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) to reform the administration of the state’s parole revocation process.

The order comes as a result of a federal class action targeting the MDOC’s Division of Probation and Parole and the Missouri Parole Board for ignoring decades-old constitutional standards in conducting parole revocation proceedings, resulting in the unlawful re-incarceration of thousands of people every year.

“Many of the thousands of people on parole supervision in Missouri have been calling for changes like these for years,” said MacArthur Justice Center Missouri co-Director Amy Breihan. “These reforms should result in fewer people thrown back behind bars, and slow the churn at prison reception centers. That’s critically important to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Missouri prisons and surrounding (often rural) communities, whose hospitals are already at capacity. Given the critical constitutional rights at stake coupled with the serious public health risk posed to prisoners, prison staff, and their communities, we urge MDOC to act swiftly to implement these reforms.”

Parole revocation accounts for roughly one-third of new prison admissions in Missouri. Every year, the Parole Board revokes parole for 3,000-7,000 individuals without offering anyone an attorney, and often without even informing parolees of their right to counsel.

The court order confirms that the Department of Corrections has been intentionally failing to provide state-funded counsel to eligible parolees. The court orders MDOC to ensure that all eligible parolees have an attorney appointed for any proceeding to move forward. The order also requires improvements to the screening process, including training staff, which identifies eligible parolees and the notification of parolees of the rights to counsel.

“Countless parolees are reincarcerated every year while being denied their constitutional right to counsel during the process. To date, MDOC has largely washed its hands of that problem,” said Megan Crane, who also serves as Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center Missouri. “Instead, they placed the blame at the feet of the already overburdened Missouri State Public Defenders office, despite the fact that it is MDOC’s responsibility, not the MSPD’s, to administer a parole system that complies with the constitution. One of the most important provisions in this order is to explicitly affirm MDOC’s responsibility to ensure eligible parolees have been appointed counsel, and prohibit proceedings if this prerequisite isn’t met.”

The court also credited persuasive testimony from parolees in concluding that parole staff pressure them to waive their rights to a revocation hearing—and that those waivers are secured without first adequately informing parolees of what, exactly, those rights are. According to a survey of adult parolees in Missouri, eighty-three percent “reported being encouraged to waive their preliminary hearing.” In the June 2020 evidentiary hearing leading up to this order, testimony highlighted the disturbing trend that often rights were waived based on false or misleading information. Several individuals testified that parole officers led them that this would speed up the process or lead to their release; instead, their parole was revoked.

“Pressuring parolees to waive their right to a hearing eliminates any chance for an individual to challenge allegations that are untrue or for which there are mitigating circumstances,” said staff attorney Pat Mobley. “The result is a reincarceration machine set on autopilot where parolees face their parole suddenly being revoked without understanding why and without any way to contest the decision. This order stops that, and empowers class members to navigate the process in an informed way.”

The court ordered several other necessary reforms aimed at a more fair, transparent process for parolees. While previously MDOC would not disclose evidence against an individual until the hearing, if at all, MDOC is now required to provide this evidence at least five days prior to a revocation hearing. The court also requires MDOC provide parolees with written notification of its revocation decisions, describing the evidence relied upon, mitigating circumstances considered and reasons for revoking parole.

While the court noted that MDOC has made several attempts to update formal parole revocation policies, it affirmed that many of the actual practices still fall short of the basic requirements of due process. One noted example was the recurrent delays in hearings. While MDOC policy states a hearing must occur within 30 days of arrest, in practice, this was seldom happening. In some instances, parolees were waiting hundreds of days in detention before they had an opportunity to confront the allegations that removed them from their communities. The court order requires proof of adherence to this policy and documentation of any exception, and envisions ongoing monitoring to ensure MDOC’s compliance.

“MDOC admitted that there were problems within their parole revocation system, and throughout the course of this litigation they did make some attempt to address those issues. But, fortunately, the court gave credence to the voices of hundreds of class members whose experiences—individually and as a whole—proved that, nevertheless, these problems persisted,” said Breihan. Crane added: “The fact that MDOC continued to insist everything was hunky dory, despite these consistent complaints from impacted people, reflects the systemic nature of the problem here in Missouri. The court’s detailed order is essential to implementing meaningful reform in both the formal policies and the day-to-day practices that shape this process.”

Gasca v. Precythe was filed in October 2017. In January, MDOC consented to certifying the case as a class action on behalf of “all adult parolees in the state of Missouri who currently face, or who in the future will face, parole revocation proceedings”—a class which includes multiple thousands of people. In February of 2019, the federal court ruled that Missouri’s parole revocation system is unconstitutional. In addition to over two dozen requirements, the court detailed suggested reforms for MDOC to adopt to avoid prolonged litigation, including additional improvements to the process to screen for counsel.