October 13, 2018

Federal Court Rules Missouri Parole Board Ignores U.S. Supreme Court Rulings Protecting the Rights of Youth Given Mandatory Life Sentences

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – A federal judge has ruled that the Missouri Department of Corrections has violated the constitutional rights of individuals sentenced to life prison terms for crimes committed when they were children and ordered Missouri to provide a meaningful opportunity for them to obtain release from prison based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey for the Western District of Missouri issued an order Friday giving the Missouri Parole Board 60 days to present a plan to bring the state into compliance with state and federal law.

The lawsuit was filed by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis (MJC-STL) and co-counsel Husch Blackwell LLP on behalf of over 90 individuals who as juveniles had been sentenced to mandatory life without parole prison (LWOP) terms, which the U.S. Supreme Court banned as unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama in 2012.  Four years after Miller, Missouri enacted a law directing parole hearings to consider release from prison for those sentenced to juvenile LWOP (JLWOP).

In Brown v. Precythe, MJC-STL attorneys argued the JLWOP hearings were stacked against the prisoners, who have been allowed to have only a single “delegate” present but have barred the delegate, including MJC-STL lawyers, from taking notes or presenting evidence, inhibiting prisoners’ ability to present evidence of maturity and rehabilitation. The Board also prohibited prisoners or their attorneys from viewing the parole files that guide the hearings and decision – a wall that Laughrey acknowledged made it impossible to know, let alone challenge, false allegations.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that individuals who commit crimes as juveniles must be provided a realistic opportunity for release from prison based on demonstrated rehabilitation,” said Amy Breihan, MJC-STL Director. “Yet in nearly every single JLWOP parole decision it has made, the Missouri Parole Board has denied parole not based on lack of rehabilitation, but on the circumstances of the underlying offense. That flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s mandate. Thankfully, the Parole Board is now under a court order to bring its practices into compliance with the law.”

The lawsuit was certified as a class action in June of this year. The court has now ordered the defendants to develop a plan which will ensure that all JLWOP prisoners – including those who have already been denied parole – be provided a “meaningful and realistic opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Since the change in Missouri law, the board has denied parole to nearly 85 percent of those whose requests for release it has considered.