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Class Action Certified Against Missouri Parole Board for Unjust Treatment of Juveniles Previously Sentenced to Death Behind Bars

– A federal judge has certified a class action lawsuit challenging the Missouri Parole Board’s disregard for the constitutional rights of youthful offenders entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release under a recent series of United States Supreme Court decisions.

The lawsuit was filed by the MacArthur Justice Center (MJC) and Husch Blackwell LLP on behalf of four individual plaintiffs who have been incarcerated in the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) since they were children, all of whom were denied a meaningful and realistic opportunity at parole despite demonstrated rehabilitation.

“We applaud the Court’s recognition of the systemic issues in Missouri’s parole system as it relates to juvenile offenders,” said Amy E. Breihan, Attorney with MacArthur’s St. Louis office. “This class represents individuals who were sentenced to die behind bars for crimes they allegedly committed as children. Missouri has seemingly denied them justice at every turn, but this decision is a strong step in the right direction.”

The lawsuit details the 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. With the class certified, the lawsuit now seeks relief on behalf of approximately 95 impacted persons.

Amy Breihan further explained, “The designation of the class is an important step in forcing the Parole Board to recognize what scientific studies and the United States Supreme Court have recognized for years: children are categorically different and must be treated differently by the criminal legal system.”

The Court’s order granting class certification points out multiple instances where parole staff admitted under oath that juvenile offenders’ parole hearings are substantially the same as any other parole consideration hearing.

In 2012, the U.S. 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. In 2016 the Court said Miller applies retroactively to those sentenced before 2012 – including the approximately 95 youthful offenders currently incarcerated with death-behind-bars sentences in Missouri.

That same year 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. When MJC attorneys have attended hearings on behalf of clients, they have been barred from taking notes, cut off from correcting factual misstatements regarding the underlying offense, and instructed that the hearings are not “lawyering moments.”

Plaintiffs recently filed a motion detailing a myriad of due process issues in the parole process and providing significant evidence that the Board has failed to fully implement a change in state law impacting the class. Plaintiffs’ motion also documents that the Board is denying parole in the vast majority of cases. The Parole Board has denied parole to approximately 86% of those who have requested hearings under the change in the law.

 “The Parole Board should be basing its decisions on the inmate’s maturity and rehabilitation over time,” continued Amy Breihan. “Instead, they’re focusing on the circumstances of the underlying offense, making arbitrary decisions, and denying parole in the vast majority of cases. That practice is not just unfair, it is unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the Board’s policies and procedures fail to comply with Missouri law, and asks for an injunction ordering the Board to change how it conducts class members’ parole reviews so as to ensure a realistic and meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity.

The lawsuit was filed May 18, 2017 in the Western District of Missouri Central Division. A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.

A copy of the Court’s decision certifying a class that includes approximately 95 Missouri inmates can be found here.

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