Hayden v. Keller, 134 F. Supp. 3d 1000 (E.D.N.C. 2015) – Hayden filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court asserting a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Hayden was serving a sentence of natural life for various non-homicide offenses. He became eligible for parole after serving twenty years, and was considered for parole every year thereafter under the normal adult offender parole provisions. At the time he filed suit in federal court, he was forty-eight years old and had been in custody since 1983. He had been denied parole each year.
After finding numerous problems with North Carolina’s parole process for juveniles, the court concluded the process failed to provide a meaningful opportunity for release under the Eighth Amendment. First, “[t]here is no differentiation between adult and juvenile offenders in North Carolina’s parole scheme.” In particular, “[t]he commissioners and their case analysts do not distinguish parole reviews for juvenile offenders from adult offenders, and thus fail to consider ‘children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change’ in their parole reviews.” When a case is reviewed, an analyst prepares a written report and recommendation. In the report, “[t]here is no information about one’s status as a juvenile offender. There is no specific information about maturity or rehabilitative efforts[,]” [and] “[t]here is no special process for one convicted as an adult before the age of 18.” Indeed, “[c]ommissioner[s] are unaware” of an inmate’s status as a juvenile offender and “[a]bsolutely no consideration is to be given for that status by the commissioners.”
The court also noted that there is no notice given to prisoners in advance of the review, no opportunity for the prisoner to be heard on the question of maturity or rehabilitation (either in writing or in person), and no actual hearing or meeting. Instead, four commissioners vote electronically without consulting the offender or each other. The court further observed that “caseloads are enormous and each parole case analyst is responsible for approximately 4,338 offenders.” The commissioners vote on approximately 2,000 cases every month, and approximately 91 in a “typical day.” In the court’s view, “[t]he sheer volume of work may itself preclude any consideration of the salient and constitutionally required meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” In addition, the court stated that the data showing that juvenile offenders are rarely paroled—none in four of the past five years—raises “questions about the meaningfulness of the process as applied to juvenile offenders.”
Based on these shortcomings, the court concluded “that the North Carolina parole process violates the Eighth Amendment as outlined in Graham.” The court gave the parties 60 days to present a plan for compliance with the decision. The district court’s decision has been stayed pending an appeal to the Fourth Circuit.