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MacArthur Justice Center Challenges Arbitrary Practices of Missouri Parole Board that Fail to Remedy Unlawful Death Behind Bars Sentences for Children

Contact:   Mae C. Quinn, Director, 314-254-8540, mae.quinn@macarthurjustice.org

The MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis (MJC-STL) filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Missouri Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) blatant disregard for constitutional rights of youthful offenders entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release under a recent series of United States Supreme Court decisions. 

In 2012, the Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole prison terms for children.  Missouri was one of several states that had been sentencing teens to die behind bars without any individualized consideration of their youth or ability to be rehabilitated.  Last year the Court said Miller applies retroactively to those sentenced before 2012 – including the approximately 80 youthful offenders currently incarcerated with death behind bars sentences in Missouri.

Yet the Missouri Supreme Court denied resentencing hearings for Miller-impacted youthful offenders.  Instead it left them to seek mercy from the Missouri Parole Board, an institution long criticized for its lack of transparency, arbitrary practices, and harsh treatment of those who come before it. Senate Bill 590, a law passed last year, provides that children previously sentenced to mandatory life without parole and who have served 25 years can ask the Parole Board to review their sentences.

But current parole processes in Missouri fail miserably to satisfy Miller’s constitutional mandates, according to the lawsuit filed today by MJC-STL and co-counsel Husch Blackwell LLP. 

The Board has denied requests for parole in 90% of cases heard so far.  And after approximately twenty hearings held since November 2016, not a single youthful offender has stepped out of prison under SB 590. 

“The constitution requires that youthful offenders be provided a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. The Missouri Parole Board is denying them that opportunity and will continue to do so unless the court intervenes,” says Amy Breihan, staff attorney at MJC-STL.

After serving 25 years or more, the vast majority of Miller-impacted youthful offenders are fully reformed, have amassed impressive rehabilitative records and/or have strong re-entry support systems.  Yet the current brusque and arbitrary process fails to sufficiently take account of such individualized information or evidence.  Instead the Board’s primary focus and concern is with the circumstances of the crime alone.

“Inmates get only 15 to 30 minutes before a single Board member.  At that hearing, they are denied even the most basic due process protections, including the right to counsel, the right to present witnesses, and even the right to see what evidence has been presented against them. They are entitled to far more,” Breihan continued.

The Complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, outlines a range of deeply troubling actions and practices on the part of MDOC and the Parole Board that demonstrate abuse of power, disregard for due process, and failure to comply with state and federal law.

For instance, Parole Board staff members prohibit lawyers for youthful offenders from bringing pen or paper into the parole hearing room to take notes.  Requests for release are being denied in single-sentence form letters without meaningful individualized analysis.  And the new MDOC Director, Anne Precythe, has gone so far as to personally write to the MacArthur Justice Center warning its attorneys that their advocacy efforts on behalf of Miller-impacted youthful offenders are essentially unwelcome and will not be permitted in the hearing room.

Mae C. Quinn, director of MJC-STL, notes that “unfortunately, recent news accounts make clear that MDOC and the Missouri Parole Board seem to believe they have absolute discretion and that their actions are beyond review or reproach.  Hopefully this lawsuit makes clear this is not the case, that we will not stand down, and that we will continue to stand up for youthful offenders who are entitled to fair treatment and individualized consideration after serving decades in prison.” 

Read the Complaint and updates here

Keywords: juvenile, juvenile justice, Miller v. Alabama, parole, Supreme Court

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