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MacArthur Justice Center Takes Missouri Prison and Parole System to Task Again – Sues Over State’s Failure to Provide Process or Lawyers before Revoking Parole

MJC-STL Class Action Would Reach Thousands Impacted by Unconstitutional Practices

The MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis (MJC-STL) filed a federal class action lawsuit yesterday in the Western District of Missouri, alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) and its Division of Probation and Parole (Parole Board) have been ignoring decades-old constitutional standards in conducting parole revocation proceedings.  In doing so MDOC and the Parole Board have been unlawfully re-incarcerating thousands of people each year.

In a series of cases going back to the 1970’s, the United States Supreme Court mandated states to provide parolees with due process protections before depriving them of liberty based upon alleged parole violations.  These protections include meaningful preliminary hearings to establish sufficient cause to proceed, as well as final hearings where evidence of the alleged violation is presented and can be challenged before a finding is made against a parolee.

The Supreme Court also established a right to counsel for parolees facing revocation of release.  Although the Court said the right did not apply in every parole revocation matter, which are considered civil rather than criminal proceedings, it held that the right to representation needed to be considered on a case by case basis.  Counsel should be provided when the parolee has a colorable claim that she did not violate parole or mitigating evidence to show why a harsh set back should not be imposed, or the parolee might otherwise benefit from the assistance of counsel because of the complexity of the situation or the parolee’s inability to meaningfully advocate for themselves.

Yet, data obtained by the MacArthur Justice Center demonstrates that the Parole Board revokes parole release for somewhere between 3000 and 7000 individuals each year without ever offering anyone an attorney.  And it conducts almost no hearings before revocation.      

“We could not believe how horrific the situation has become in Missouri,” declared Mae Quinn, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center.  “Here we are in the 21st century running an assembly-line parole violation system that just pushes people back into our prisons without any real legal protections.  And yet such practices were rendered unconstitutional nearly 50 years ago.”

 Indeed, the Complaint further points out that while incarceration rates are dropping nation-wide, Missouri is one of only a handful of states whose prisoner numbers are going up.  The suit alleges this is in part due to lack of due process screening and lack of challenges in parole violation cases, which account for thousands of persons in the prisons.  And some of these individuals have been re-incarcerated for such minor allegations as failing to make meetings with their parole officers or maintaining stable employment, which frequently do not amount to willful violations.

Quinn further explained, “Currently we have the eighth highest incarceration rate in the nation, the fastest growing female prison population, and are at the very top of the list for returning parolees to our prisons.  Obviously, the system is broken.  And sadly, Missouri taxpayers are footing the bill for costly prison terms that do not serve the most vulnerable among us.  Instead, Missouri has created an unending incarceration cycle that serves no legitimate interests in society.”

Indeed, among the named plaintiffs is Stephanie Gasca, who was taken into prison in June 2017 while 8 months pregnant for allegedly failing to follow special directions of her parole officer.  She was held at a local jail before being shipped back to prison, where she gave birth to her son under the most difficult of circumstances. 

Still incarcerated at WERDCC, where she has not been given access to an attorney to help her fight the parole charges, Ms. Gasca continues to suffer complications from the birth and is not being provided with adequate medical or mental health services.  Yet she has no idea what is happening with her parole revocation matter or when she will get to go home.

And Ms. Gasca is not alone.  As the Complaint explains, the parole revocation process – like much else relating to Missouri’s Parole Board – is shrouded in secrecy, lacks transparency, and is confusing to even those working in the system.  Parole records are rife with errors, sometimes resulting in parolees being falsely accused.  Yet, the Board does not allow parolees access to its files to challenge accusations against them or find out who played a role revoking their parole.

Indeed, the lawsuit shows how the Parole Board has failed to respond to concerns about whether Don Ruzicka – who left the Board earlier this year in disgrace after being outed by MacArthur Justice for playing games during parole grant hearings – was involved in wrongful parole revocations too.  Instead, in response to an inquiry from one of the named plaintiffs, Timothy Gallagher, who wants to know whether Ruzicka’s misdeeds tainted his proceedings, parole officials blithely responded: “it really doesn’t matter who was at the hearing.”

 Read the Complaint here.

Keywords: Mae C. Quinn, Missouri Department of Corrections, parole, St. Louis

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