A U.S. district judge has given Missouri Department of Corrections officials 60 days to present a plan for complying with the U.S. Constitution when it handles cases of prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed while juveniles.
In her Oct. 12 ruling, Judge Nanette K. Laughrey ordered the corrections director and members of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole to draft “policies, procedures and customs” ensuring that such prisoners get “a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” as mandated by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The order was a partial granting of summary judgment for four plaintiffs, all state prisoners acting on behalf of a class of approximately 95 others in Missouri serving “JLWOP” sentences (mandatory life-without-parole sentences imposed on offenders who were under 18 years of age at the time of the crime).
The plaintiffs are represented by the MacArthur Justice Center, a civil-rights law firm that pushes for reform in the criminal-justice system, as well as a team of attorneys at Husch Blackwell in St. Louis.
Amy Breihan, director of MacArthur’s St. Louis office, said this lawsuit is about ensuring a fair process more than a specific result for the plaintiffs.
“It may be that at end of the day they’ll have hearings and the outcome is the same,” said Breihan. “I don’t think it will be. In working on this case, I’ve met incredible people who should not be incarcerated anymore. And I think even conservative people would probably agree with me that we don’t want people in prison who don’t need to be there.”
Mary Compton, spokeswoman for the defendants’ attorneys at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, wrote in an email: “We are reviewing the ruling and determining next steps.”
The plaintiffs filed their original complaint in May 2017. In it, they cited a growing recognition by the U.S. Supreme Court that the behavior-control centers of the human brain aren’t fully developed in juveniles, so their actions aren’t necessarily evidence of an “irretrievably depraved character” and as individuals, they show a potential for rehabilitation.
In response to the high court’s rulings, the Missouri legislature in 2016 passed Senate Bill 590, which allowed for JLWOP prisoners to request a review of their sentences. The four original plaintiffs in this suit had hearings pursuant to the new law, but all were denied parole.
In their subsequent lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that the state’s policies for handling their cases and similar ones constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, violations of their due-process rights under the 14th Amendment, and violations of SB 590.
Laughrey found that the state was indeed prohibiting inmates from viewing their parole files, which hampered their ability to advocate for their maturity and rehabilitation. She found the state was limiting inmates to a single delegate who could not attest to those personal changes either, or make legal arguments for them. In contrast, victims could attend the hearings with multiple supporters and make legal arguments, Laughrey found, while prosecutors also could speak for any length of time and even present “unproven theories” about the underlying offense. She concluded that the defendants’ denial notices are inadequate, and that the board members lack “any objective tools, matrices, or criteria” to make their decisions.
Yet Laughrey agreed with the state that plaintiffs had failed to show undisputed evidence that the defendants were violating SB 590, which requires the Board of Probation and Parole to take into account 15 factors, including the plaintiffs’ rehabilitative efforts, growth and maturity since the underlying offense, age, intellectual capacity, and current level of risk to society.
In a filing, Assistant Attorney General Michael Spillane had argued: “Plaintiffs draw the inference that the decision-makers must not really consider the statutory factors set out for their consideration by Missouri law. But the testimony in the record is that they do.”
Laughrey agreed and denied summary judgment on that claim.
It remains unclear whether the state will appeal the court-ordered changes to parole policy. The state had staunchly denied any constitutional violations.
“If they really believe in reform, they’ll swallow this loss and try to remedy the constitutional violations,” Breihan said. “If they appeal, we’ll fight it.”
The case is Norman Brown, et al., v. Anne L. Precythe, et al., 2:17-cv-04082-NKL.
By: Nicholas Phillip | Missouri Lawyers Weekly