Federal Court Holds Missouri’s Parole Process for Youth Unconstitutional

10.01.21

Missouri’s parole review process for children sentenced to mandatory life-without-parole sentences is unconstitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled, because it fails to “take into account the unique considerations of juvenile offenders” and provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The case arises from Missouri’s implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which in 2012 struck down mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for all children under 18.

In response to Miller, Missouri enacted a new law that converted life-without-parole sentences into life-with-parole sentences by making the nearly 100 people impacted by Miller eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison.

The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, however, denied parole to almost everyone who qualified for a hearing under the new law, leading to the filing of a class action lawsuit in 2017 challenging the parole board’s policies, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

In 2018, the lower federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the parole board changed its practices, resulting in the release of 17 people.

The State appealed, and on September 17, the lower court’s ruling was upheld by the Eighth Circuit.

Children Are Different

“[T]he [Supreme] Court has reaffirmed time and again that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes,'” the federal appeals court wrote in its decision.

Juvenile offenders, with their “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” are in the eyes of the Constitution less morally culpable and more capable of reforming their deficiencies than adult offenders.

Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit decision states, “the punishment of life without parole is disproportionate and unconstitutional ‘for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.'”

To avoid disproportionate and unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences, the court wrote, the state must give a meaningful opportunity for release “to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

The Eighth Circuit held Missouri’s parole review process is unconstitutional because it fails to make sure that “juveniles whose crimes reflect only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence.”

It found the parole process lacking in three key ways:

  1. The board does not allow people to review their own parole files, which “makes it nearly impossible for them to identify potential factual errors in their records or to adequately respond to adverse evidence that may have a direct bearing on the
    parole board’s decision on whether they have ‘demonstrated maturity and
    rehabilitation.'”
  2. Unlike prosecutors, law enforcement, and victims—who have unrestricted opportunities to speak at a parole hearing—the person being considered for parole is allowed only one “delegate” who is limited to talking about post-release plans and cannot, for example “provide information or evidence about any abuse or trauma suffered by the Plaintiff leading up to the underlying crime.”
  3. To announce a denial, the board uses a “barebones, boilerplate form” that is unsigned and does not indicate how the board voted or reached its decision. These forms do not show that the board truly considered the “distinctive attributes of youth” and they make it difficult for someone who is denied to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation at a future parole hearing.

The court further found that, instead of focusing on constitutionally required considerations like efforts toward rehabilitation and subsequent growth and increased maturity, parole hearings tend to focus mostly on the underlying offense. This creates a real risk that the board “relies on the heinousness of Plaintiffs’ crimes (all murders) to deny parole without consideration for their maturity and rehabilitation.”

The State argued on appeal that it should be able to use a risk assessment tool that was designed using the recidivism rates and characteristics of adult offenders. The court rejected this argument, noting that the tool “intrinsically disfavors juvenile offenders because of their youth”—in direct violation of the “foundational principle” that “children are constitutionally different from adults.”

The appeals court also questioned the lower court’s summary conclusion that there is no right to state-funded counsel for juvenile parole hearings, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings on whether the appointment of counsel is constitutionally required.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision provides hope for those denied parole in Missouri.