JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri has been ordered to overhaul the way it determines whether to release prison inmates who were jailed for violent crimes they committed as minors.
In a ruling handed down Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey sided with inmates in ordering the state’s parole board to comply with state and federal law when it comes to minors sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
In filing the lawsuit, the male prisoners said the board had been disregarding their constitutional rights by denying them the opportunity to review information presented to the board, to provide expert testimony, to have the ability to cross-examine and to submit statements in writing to the board.
“This is a significant and long-awaited victory,” said Amy Breihan, Missouri director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, which spearheaded the case. “Seven years after the Supreme Court invalidated these … sentences, Missouri is finally being held accountable for providing impacted folks a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which disallowed mandatory sentences of life without parole for those under 18 years old. Sentencing someone that young to life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision. It was later determined that the Miller ruling applies retroactively, which would affect dozens of offenders currently incarcerated in Missouri prisons.
The lawsuit claimed cruel and unusual punishment and deprivation of due process, in violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution.
Initially, it appeared that the affected inmates would be resentenced in court, as was the case in many states across the country.
But, the Missouri Supreme Court denied resentencing hearings, and the Legislature relegated the inmates to the Missouri Probation and Parole Board, making every youthful offender serving a mandatory life without parole sentence eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison.
The lawsuit was filed after the board denied parole to over 85% of the inmates who had hearings. Among the practices criticized in the lawsuit was the board’s denial of access to evidence being used against the inmates.
Under Laughrey’s ruling, prisoners will be able to participate in hearings and bring multiple witnesses to hearings, as well as have an attorney present. The board also will be required to document reasons for their decision.
“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. Indeed, these decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children,” Breihan said.