U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey has ordered the Missouri Parole Board to start handling juvenile cases according to the U.S. and Missouri constitutions after ruling that the board’s current practice violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Article I, Sections 10 and 21, of the Missouri Constitution.
In an order issued on August 1 as a result of a class action lawsuit, Brown v. Precythe, filed by the MacArthur Justice Center, Laughrey ordered more than 20 changes to how the State of Missouri handles youthful offenders serving mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences. The four names plaintiffs in the case are Norman Brown, Ralph McElroy, Sidney Roberts and Theron Roland.
The changes, which the court ordered must be made “promptly,” will enable these offenders to more effectively participate in hearings, including requiring full access to the records in their parole files; the right to bring multiple witnesses to a parole hearing, including an expert witness; the right to be represented by counsel at a critical pre-hearing interview; and, if represented, the right for their attorney to meaningfully advocate at the parole hearing.
The Missouri Parole Board will also be required to document reasons for its parole decisions and the evidence relied upon in reaching its decision.
The court also ordered changes in how the parole board will run hearings and make decisions for class members. Rather than being heard before a single parole board member, hearings will take place before two to three board members. In addition, the board cannot use risk assessment tools unless they are specifically tailored to the youthful offender class, because such tools may impermissibly hold the person’s youth at the time of the offense against them.
The court also took aim at the outright discrimination facing juvenile LWOP prisoners, including prohibiting any impediments in programming participation based on JLWOP status.
“Perhaps the most important part of the Order is that it prohibits the parole board from denying parole based solely on the seriousness of the offense and requires them to make decisions through a youth-focused lens,” said Amy E. Breihan, Missouri director of the MacArthur Justice Center.
“Indeed, these decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children.”
As Judge Laughrey quoted from the judicial record, “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”
Class members previously denied parole will be granted the opportunity for a second hearing under the new policies and procedures. In the meantime, the parole board should be trained on how to conduct a meaningful parole process for youthful offenders, as the court’s order includes mandatory training to be developed by the Council of State Government.
“Our clients – each of whom was convicted of a crime as a kid and has grown up in adult prison over the past couple of decades – will finally have the opportunity to show that they have changed,” said Megan Crane, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.
The MacArthur Justice Center brought this suit in the wake of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole prison terms for children based on its recognition that youth are inherently less culpable and more capable of rehabilitation.
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. At first, it looked like the approximately 100 people in Missouri serving these unconstitutional sentences would be resentenced in court, as was the case in many states. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, denied resentencing hearings for Miller-impacted youthful offenders. Instead, the Missouri legislature relegated them to the Missouri Parole Board, making every youthful offender serving a mandatory LWOP sentence eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison.
Unfortunately, Missouri’s attempt to answer Miller via the parole process failed. The Missouri Parole Board treated juvenile LWOP individuals with arbitrary and cruel practices, denying parole to over 85 percent of the people who had hearings and providing only boilerplate explanations for their decisions.
Among many other problems, youthful offenders were denied access to the evidence against them and limited to one delegate who could accompany them to their hearing – often forcing a choice between an attorney and a family member. Most glaringly, in direct contravention of Miller, the Board failed to consider the prisoners’ youth at the time of the crime when denying parole.
“Miller gave our clients hope, for the first time, that they might have a life outside of prison. Missouri’s sham parole process denied this hope for too long,” said Crane. “This order promises to finally give them a chance.”
A copy of the Court’s order can be found at https://tinyurl.com/y337n2sn.