Federal Court Orders Meaningful Review for Missouri Juveniles


The court ordered Missouri’s parole board to implement new policies and practices that provide people who were children at the time of the offense with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for children under 18 at the time of the crime because children are different from adults. The Court explained:

First, children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Second, children are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crimeproducing settings. And third, a child’s character is not as well formed as an adult’s; his traits are less fixed and his actions less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity.

Because the “signature qualities” of youth “are all transient,” and “a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” the Court “bar[red] life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders” and required that states provide them a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

After Miller, Missouri lawmakers passed a law providing that any person sentenced as a juvenile to life without parole may seek parole after serving 25 years.

But almost all of the people who became eligible for parole under the new law (nearly 85 percent) were denied parole by the Missouri parole board, often based exclusively on the circumstances of the offense. Those who were denied parole filed a class action lawsuit against the parole board.

Last fall, a federal court found that the Missouri parole board had violated Miller‘s requirement that it provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release by denying applicants access to the evidence against them; allowing them only one delegate at a hearing (often forcing them to choose between an attorney and a family member); and failing to consider their youth at the time of the offense as Miller mandates.

“Consideration of maturity and rehabilitation requires a review of how the inmate has changed since the offense was committed,” the court wrote. “Permitting the Board to base a denial of parole to a Miller-impacted individual on the ‘circumstances of the offense’ alone necessarily authorizes the Board to disregard evidence of the inmate’s subsequent rehabilitation and maturity—in contravention of the Supreme Court’s edict.”

Earlier this month, the court ordered more than 20 changes that the parole board must implement “promptly” to make hearings comply with Miller. Applicants must be given full access to their records; allowed to bring multiple witnesses to a hearing, including an expert witness; and may be represented by counsel at a pre-hearing interview and at the parole hearing without limits on the evidence or arguments the attorney may present.

Hearings that used to be conducted by a single parole board member must now be heard by two to three board members, and the board must document its reasons for its parole decisions.

“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, which brought the lawsuit. “Indeed, these decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children.”

The court ordered specialized training for parole board members to implement these changes, and those who were previously denied parole will be granted a second hearing under the new policies. Those sentenced to life as juveniles also will be permitted to participate in classes and programs that were previously closed to them because of their sentences.

The court emphasized that “the opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller‘s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”