JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A federal court has ordered Missouri to overhaul how it handles the parole process for offenders who committed violent crimes as a minor.
U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey issued declaratory and injunctive relief, ordering the Missouri Probation and Parole Board to improve transparency, accountability, and training for youthful offender parole hearings.
“Specifically, the Court found that a number of Defendants’ policies, practices, and customs combine to deprive those serving [juvenile life without parole] sentences of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” the 23-page order states.
The judgment included nearly two dozen procedures — developed through mediation — the state is required to “promptly implement.”
Some of the 23 procedures include:
- Access to Hearing Recordings: Class members shall have access to recordings of their hearings as soon as practicable after the hearing, and no later than two weeks after the hearing.
- Counsel: Counsel’s ability to present evidence and make arguments before the Board, and their access to information presented to the Board, may not be limited in any fashion inconsistent with this Order.
- Notice of hearings. The Board will provide Class members notice of the hearing date at least 60 days before the scheduled date. The Board will schedule the hearing and inform the Institutional Parole Officer, who will provide notice to the Class member of the date at least 60 days in advance of the scheduled hearing date.
The Missouri Probation and Parole Board has already adopted some of the procedures, such as allowing note taking during hearings.
The extensive changes come as a result of a class action lawsuit, Brown v. Precythe, filed by the MacArthur Justice Center, targeting the parole board’s alleged failure to comply with state and federal law when it comes to juvenile offenders serving mandatory life without parole sentences.
“This is a significant and long-awaited victory,” said Amy E. Breihan, MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri director. “Seven years after the Supreme Court invalidated these juvenile [life without parole] sentences, Missouri is finally being held accountable for providing impacted folks a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole prison terms for children based on its recognition that youths are inherently less culpable and more capable of rehabilitation.
Missouri was one of several states that had been sentencing minors to life behind bars without any individualized consideration of youth or ability to be rehabilitated.
In 2016, SB 590 was passed by the Missouri General Assembly and signed into law. The bill, in part, allows offenders sentenced as a juvenile to life without parole prior to Aug. 28, 2016, to “submit to the parole board a petition for a review of his or her sentence, regardless of whether the case is final for purposes of appeal, after serving twenty-five years of incarceration on the sentence of life without parole.”
The original lawsuit alleged the parole board treated those individuals “with arbitrary and cruel practices.” The judge sided with the inmates, ordering an overhaul of how the parole hearings are handled.
“Perhaps the most important part of the order,” said Breihan, “is that it prohibits the Parole Board from denying parole based solely on the seriousness of the offense, and requires them to make decisions through a youth-focused lens. Indeed, these decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children.”
The MacArthur Justice Center is also pursuing two other lawsuits focused on youthful offenders and recently secured summary judgment in a class action regarding the board’s parole revocation process.
Alisha Shurr was a reporter for The Missouri Times and The Missouri Times Magazine. She joined The Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University.