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Court Moves Forward Class Action Challenging Unjust Parole Process for Missouri Juveniles Previously Sentenced to Death Behind Bars

St. Louis, Missouri – A Missouri federal court has ruled in favor of plaintiffs who sued the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC), challenging the Parole Board’s disregard for the constitutional rights of youthful offenders. The class-action complaint argues such defendants are entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release under a recent series of United States Supreme Court decisions.

Brown v. Precythe, filed earlier this year by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis (MJC-STL) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, alleges 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.

In permitting the case to proceed, the Court held that juvenile offenders are constitutionally-entitled to a meaningful and realistic opportunity for parole release. The Court also ordered the defendants to turn over parole files and recordings of parole hearings—materials historically withheld not just from the public, but from prisoners and their attorneys as well.

“The Missouri Department of Corrections has shown that, absent court intervention, they will continue to disrespect and disregard youthful offenders’ right to a meaningful opportunity for release”, said Mae Quinn, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s St. Louis office.

Quinn’s MJC-STL colleague, attorney Amy Breihan, further noted: “We are grateful for the Judge’s ruling that not only allows the case to proceed but takes important steps to ensure that details about parole processes and proceedings, until now largely withheld by the state, are disclosed.”

In 2012, the Supreme 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 in 2016 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. Prisoners are not permitted to review what evidence is contained in their parole file, even where there might be errors or inaccuracies.

Further, when MJC-STL attorneys attended hearings on behalf of clients, they were barred from taking notes, cut off from correcting factual misstatements regarding the underlying offense, and instructed that the hearings are not “lawyering moments.” And despite the fact that Miller and the cases that follow emphasize the significance of youthful offender’s maturation, development, and rehabilitation, the vast majority of those who have had a parole hearing under the recent change in law have been denied because of the circumstances of the offense.

“Those impacted by Miller have been waiting for justice for over five years now. This is a big step forward for them, and for other juvenile offenders who may appear before the Missouri Parole Board in the future,” said Amy Breihan. “This decision reminds the State that they can’t simply slap parole eligibility on a young inmate’s prison term and expect to have satisfied their constitutional duties. Children are different. The Supreme Court has said that repeatedly, and here the Court expressly recognized that axiom applies not just at sentencing, but to parole proceedings as well.”

This is one of several challenges MJC-STL has brought against the Missouri Department of Corrections. More recently, on October 26, a state court judge ruled in favor of another of their clients in a case that similarly focused on Parole Board disregard for youthful offender protections.

“The importance of these two decisions should not be underestimated,” said Quinn. “They reinforce what scientific studies and the Supreme Court have already recognized – that youthful offenders are categorically less culpable than adults. Missouri needs to make sure its administration of justice adequately takes into consideration age, vulnerability and other mitigating factors. Until then, justice deferred remains justice denied.”

Earlier this year, as part of their fight for more a fair and accountable parole system, MJC-STL discovered that that Parole Board Member Don Ruzicka, a former state legislator, along with an unnamed Parole Analyst, had been playing “parole bingo” with inmates who appear before them. Shortly after making this public and issuing a call to action to Governor Greitens, Ruzicka resigned from the Parole Board.

Full order denying motion to dismiss here.

Class action certification here

Keywords: JLWOP, juvenile justice, parole

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