JEFFERSON CITY — In a decision that could further reduce Missouri’s prison population, a federal judge has ordered the state to overhaul its parole system.
The order, spurred by a class-action lawsuit in 2017 by state prison inmates, requires the state’s Department of Corrections to implement over two dozen reforms related to the agency’s unconstitutional handling of parole revocation proceedings.
The lawsuit alleged that the current practices resulted in the unlawful reincarceration of thousands of people each year.
“These reforms should result in fewer people thrown back behind bars, and slow the churn at prison reception centers,” said Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center.
The 55-page order from U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough found the Department of Corrections has been intentionally failing to provide state-funded counsel to eligible parolees. The court ordered the department to ensure all eligible parolees have an attorney appointed for any proceeding to move forward.
The judge also ordered several other changes. While the agency previously would not disclose evidence against an individual until the hearing, officials are now required to provide evidence at least five days prior to a revocation hearing.
The court also wants the state to move faster on revocation hearings that have previously resulted in parolees waiting hundreds of days in detention.
“Having reviewed the evidence presented at the hearing and in the parties’ briefing on the matter, the court finds constitutional deficiencies in the current parole revocation process remain and issues this order to remedy such due process violations,” Bough wrote.
Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said the department had no comment on the order “at this time.”
One of the inmates who brought the lawsuit, Stephanie Gasca, 30, was eight months pregnant and had battled substance abuse and mental health challenges when she was taken into custody by parole officials and held in the Greene County Jail in June 2017. A parole warrant was issued after she left a residential drug treatment program.
Gasca was allegedly held in jail for several days without prenatal or mental health care. When a parole officer showed up, the officer apparently didn’t inform her of a right to counsel and led Gasca to believe it was in her best interest to answer questions and waive formal proceedings.
Instead of ending up on house arrest, as Gasca had hoped, she was transferred to the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center in Vandalia, where she gave birth to a boy.
“Countless parolees are reincarcerated every year while being denied their constitutional right to counsel during the process. To date, MDOC has largely washed its hands of that problem,” said Megan Crane, who also serves as co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s St. Louis office.
The decision could mean a further exodus of inmates from the state’s prison population, which has been dropping in recent years.
“That’s critically important to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Missouri prisons and surrounding (often rural) communities, whose hospitals are already at capacity,” Breihan said.