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Missouri Parole Board Sidesteps Professional Responsibilities in Favor of "Parole Bingo"

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

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center (MJC) is calling on Governor Eric Greitens to take immediate action to meaningfully reform the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, starting with the removal of appointed Board member Don Ruzicka, who has turned countless parole release hearings into games for his own enjoyment rather than proceedings concerned with accountability and justice.

MJC has discovered that that Parole Board Member Don Ruzicka, a former state legislator, along with an unnamed Parole Analyst, have been playing “parole bingo” with inmates who appear before them.  The two spent their time during proceedings trying to have inmates say a chosen “word of the day.”  Such words included animal names and other non-criminal justice related terms like “armadillo,” “platypus,” “manatee,” and “hootenanny.”  In addition, Board member Ruzicka and parole staff actually competed to see who could make inmates say the most chosen words during a day’s docket.

Adding to the atmosphere of disrespect, and further demonstrating disregard for official duties and the interests of the people he was appointed to serve, Ruzicka ultimately added song titles to the mix.  Thus, as a further part of their shared hearings Ruzicka and the unnamed parole analyst his staff partner held contests to see if they could get inmates to answer their questions with phrases like “Hound Dog” (Elvis), “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash), and “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” (Meatloaf). 

Beyond playing word games, Ruzicka coordinated his attire with hearing staff to enhance the comedic level of proceedings, further demonstrating they were not taking their jobs seriously.  While on some days they wore all black, on others they donned coordinating silly ties, sometimes with goofy animal figures or characters from South Park, a dark an adult-cartoon show.   

Ruzicka’s conduct was acknowledged in findings from the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Inspector General Amy Roderick. According to Roderick, who listened to a number of hearing tapes as part of an internal investigation into such matters, Ruzicka and the Parole Analyst “were trying so hard to embed words or song titles into their questions or statements that they were not focused on the proper questions to ask . . . nor were they actively listening to the responses.”  For instance, on the day “hootenanny” was the chosen term, Ruzicka could be heard laughing out loud as it was referenced while his assigned Parole Analyst whispered, “I got four.”

Apparently based on the complaint of one concerned MDOC employee, in summer 2016, Inspector General Roderick undertook an investigation and then issued detailed findings in November 2016 confirming that these events did in fact occur.  She further determined that Don Ruzicka and the unnamed Parole Analyst had violated both prison policies and Gubernatorial Executive Orders by “failing to conduct the business of state government in a manner that inspires confidence and trust” and “failing to perform duties responsibly.”  Roderick also reported these concerns to the Parole Board Chairman and Chief State Supervisor for the Board. 

Inspector General Roderick’s investigative report not only clearly documents Ruzicka’s outrageous conduct, it also proves the complicity of many Parole Board members and staff, who, long-aware of these antics, did or said nothing to stop it – even though the lives and liberty of countless individuals were on the line. 

Absent MJC’s investigative efforts it appears these shameful activities have not been shared by state officials with the public.  And shockingly -- as recounted in an Amended Class Action Complaint filed today by MJC in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri in Brown et al. v. Anne L. Precythe, et al. -- Don Ruzicka remains a Parole Board member who continues to conduct countless parole hearings each week.     

Indeed, MJC represents numerous youthful offenders whose lives are impacted by Ruzicka. Previously sentenced to life without parole, these individuals have been ordered by the United States Supreme Court to be given a meaningful chance at a second chance pursuant to Miller v. Alabama.  Ruzicka has served as the presiding officer in such matters, which state-wide have resulted in parole denials for 90% of Miller-impacted youth.  Thus, Ruzicka’s continuing role, in part, forms the basis of MJC’s class action challenge to the Missouri Parole Board’s handling of such cases.

Mae Quinn, director of MJC, recounts Don Ruzicka presided over one hearing she attended just two weeks ago.  “It is shameful and outrageous that after an internal investigation, reports to the highest level of the Parole Board, and undisputed findings that Ruzicka literally played games with legal hearings he was supposed to be supervising – that this man is still allowed to decide upon the course of people’s lives.”

“We have seen firsthand that the entire system needs to be overhauled,” states Amy Breihan, MJC staff attorney. “Discretion granted to the Parole Board in Missouri is all too often abused without oversight or address or corrective action. Decisions seem rushed, arbitrary, and irrational.”  

Indeed, the Board has repeatedly denied parole to another MJC client, Joseph Yeager, for whom MJC filed a federal lawsuit last week in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.  Yeager admitted he took the life of another during a drunken bar incident approximately 25 years   ago.  But he has received only one discipline violation in three decades, completed countless rehabilitative programs, and published a book to help positively impact at-risk youth.  Yet, to the surprise of even former prison officials, he continues to remain behind bars based upon seemingly whimsical decisions of the Board. 

In all, MJC has sued the Parole Board on four different occasions over the last six months.  It says it will continue to seek justice from the courts on behalf of clients whose lives and futures have been damaged by a parole system that has seemingly become out of control, lawless, and arbitrary in its actions. 

But in an open letter to the Governor, signed by other criminal and juvenile justice allies, concerned citizens, and impacted family members, MJC has urged Governor Greitens “to act right now to staunch the flow of future injustices by immediately removing Don Ruzicka from the Parole Board to protect against any more Missouri inmates – predominantly African-American men – from being demoralized, dehumanized, and treated like toys and play-things during legal proceedings.”

In addition, MJC calls for a further audit to discern the depths of the problems – including how many of the 45,000 hearings conducted since Ruzicka’s appointment to the Board have been impacted by his actions and those of the unnamed Parole Analysist.  MJC has also called for the creation of an oversight group, to include formerly incarcerated persons, to help serve as a watch dog for the Board.  Statutory and regulations changes must also occur to ensure due process and other checks are in place.

Such clear and concrete actions, MJC believes, are only the first steps in much-needed comprehensive reform plan if Missouri’s criminal justice system wants to stop being seen as a national joke.

Learn more and read updates here

Parole Board Reform Letter to Gov. Greitens

Missouri Inspector General Parole Games Investigation Report

Keywords: Governor, juvenile, juvenile justice, parole, parole board, parole games

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