December 29, 2016

MacArthur Justice Center Again Challenges MDOC Practices, Argues Parole Proceedings for Juveniles Are Unconstitutional

The MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis (MJC-STL) has filed a lawsuit alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) parole system violates the constitutional rights of youthful offenders. Citing a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the suit argues that inmates who were sentenced for crimes committed as children require special consideration by the state’s Parole Board.

By depriving juvenile offenders of individualized, youth-focused assessments, the lawsuit charges, MDOC parole proceedings violate due process requirements and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. The declaratory judgment action was filed Wednesday in state court in Jefferson City.

Mae Quinn, Director of MJC-STL, explained: “Because youth are categorically less culpable than adults who commit the same offenses, they must be given a meaningful opportunity for release that focuses on their lack of maturity at the time of the crime, extreme vulnerability to peer pressure, and still developing moral compasses at the time they enter the justice system.’

Quinn continued, “A one-sided, 15- or 20-minute, interrogation by Board members and prison staff without any real consideration of modern brain science, adolescent development, or the impact of youthful traumas on child defendants does not amount to a real chance at a second chance.”

The lawsuit argues other standard parole practices are also unlawful. These include prohibiting inmates from reviewing evidence against them prior to or during their hearings, barring defendants from having a witness on their behalf if they choose to have a lawyer present, and imposing maximum set-back terms without due consideration of lesser alternatives.

Quinn noted that Missouri parole practices have long gone without challenge or scrutiny. “Unfortunately, unlike other states where attorneys are involved to ensure proceedings are fair, Missouri fails to provide the public defender system with sufficient funds to cover parole release or violation hearings,” Quinn said. “Because problematic practices well- known to Missouri policymakers have gone largely unchecked for decades, we feel the need to serve as a watchdog on these issues.”

This is the third lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Center in the last two months, taking aim at Missouri’s prisons. The most recent prior complaint, a class action filed in federal court in collaboration with the ACLU, seeks to force MDOC to provide appropriate treatment to inmates suffering from Hepatitis C. That case potentially impacts thousands of Missouri prisoners.

Amy Breihan, the MJC-STL staff attorney spearheading the group’s efforts to fight for meaningful hepatitis treatment, noted: “The MDOC system is broken. We see this in news reports about how it treats its own employees. And we see it in how the Department treats (or doesn’t treat) those in its care. Ourlawsuitsreflect the need for a fundamental cultural shift. A climate of indifference towards life, liberty, and the law within MDOC is just not acceptable.”

Notably, the current Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, George Lombardi, tendered his resignation this month. That followed MJC-STL’s two prior court filings and other emerging legal controversies involving the Department, including accounts of a hostile and sometimes violent work environment where whistleblowers who call for change face retaliation.