October 26, 2017

MacArthur Justice Center’s Cutting-Edge Case Calling for Juvenile Offender Parole Standards Moves Forward

In a victory for the rights of Missouri youthful offenders, a judge rejected the State’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by the MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis (MJC-STL), alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) parole system violates the constitutional rights of defendants convicted while juveniles.

Filed December 2016 in Missouri’s Cole County Circuit Court, Eric Gray v. Missouri Department of Corrections argues that by depriving juvenile offenders of individualized, youth-focused assessments, MDOC parole proceedings violate due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

“This is an important case that seeks to ensure parole proceedings are infused with age-appropriate considerations for inmates who were convicted and incarcerated when just children,” said Mae Quinn, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s St. Louis office. “We are pleased by Judge Green’s ruling, allowing Eric’s case to move forward.”

Barely 16 years old when arrested, Gray grew up facing daily exposure to trauma and violence, including rampant gang activity and recruitment in the community. It was in his context that he fell into an inappropriate relationship with an older, predatory woman. His youth, vulnerability, and status as a child victim, were significant factors that led to his criminal justice involvement. Yet the Parole Board treated Gray’s parole request no different from that of an adult-defendant.

“Countless studies have proven that youth are categorically less culpable than adults who commit the same offenses,” said Quinn. “As such, recent Supreme Court rulings should be read to require a meaningful opportunity for release for child defendants and proceedings that focus 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.”

The lawsuit also argues many MDOC’s parole practices are unlawful for adult defendants too. 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. It is one of several lawsuits filed by MJC-STL against the Missouri prison and parole system in less than a year.