March 25, 2020

MacArthur Justice Center Asks Court to Halt Parole Revocations, Release Parolees Due to COVID-19

Emergency motion calls for release of those that prove no risk to community

MISSOURI – In light of the spread of COVID-19, the MacArthur Justice Center is asking a federal court to curtail statewide parole revocation proceedings and release certain categories of people incarcerated solely for parole violations given the well-documented, increased threat of the virus for detained populations. On Monday, the state’s Department of Corrections confirmed the first positive case of an individual in its custody.

“Public health experts, medical professionals, and community supervision executives all agree that reducing prison and jail populations as quickly and safely as possible is critical to mitigating the impact of COVID-19,” said Amy Breihan, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office. “The emergency motion before the court targets populations that pose no risk to the community yet remain highly vulnerable to the virus, and also serves broader public health interests.”

In February of 2019, the federal court ruled that Missouri’s parole revocation system is unconstitutional. While the court previously scheduled an evidentiary hearing to determine the appropriate remedy in the face of these systemic issues, that hearing has been postponed until June due to the pandemic. In the meantime, hundreds of parolees have continued to process through the unlawful system and be re-incarcerated. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, those constitutional violations take on a heightened danger, threatening parolees’ lives, the lives of other inmates and corrections staff, and public health at large. In light of these heightened and deadly risks, attorneys argue the court must act.

The motion calls for a halt to parole revocation proceedings as well as the withdrawal or cancellation of all pending parole warrants or holds. It also asks the court to release on parole supervision individuals:

1. waiting for parole revocation decision;

2. whose parole was revoked due to technical violations, such as failing to report a new address or to visit their parole officer at the required time;

3. whose parole was revoked and have less than one year left before their release date;

4. with conditions or characteristics make them high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19; and,

5. all class members whose parole was revoked on the basis of a laws violation based on conduct which did not result in a criminal conviction.

“These individuals can be released without risk to the community,” said Breihan. “Forcing those with technical violations or pending revocation decisions to remain in detention during a pandemic is unnecessary in terms of public safety, exposes them to a known and serious harm, and elevates the risk to the broader community.”

Both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Governor have called for an observance of social distancing and increase personal hygiene, requirements that are impossible for those in detention. In a signed declaration filed with the Court, Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health professional, stated: “In such environments, infectious diseases that are transmitted via the air or touch are more likely to spread. This therefore presents an increased danger for the spread of COVID-19 if and when it is introduced into the facility.” As such, he recommends releasing individuals as an essential measure to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Now that one prisoner has contracted COVID-19, it is essentially a certainty that it will spread within MDOC, and to surrounding communities,” said Megan Crane, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.  “Corizon, the private health care provider for MDOC, will inevitably be overwhelmed, exacerbating the death toll and increasing risks to all involved A parole revocation should not be a death sentence, but that is precisely what is at stake here.”

The motion comes as part of an on-going federal class action targeting the state’s Parole Board for their practices which revoke parole for 3,000-7,000 individuals every year, without offering anyone an attorney, and apparently without even informing parolees of their right to counsel.