By Elana Bildner

Brown v. Precythe, No. 2:17-cv-04082-NKL, 2018 WL 4956519 (W.D. Mo. Oct. 12, 2018)

Update: There’s further good news in the Missouri case challenging parole procedures for juvenile lifers: A year after they defeated a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs were granted summary judgment on their claim that the state’s policies, procedures, and customs for parole review for Miller-impacted inmates violates the Eighth Amendment. In particular, the court took issue with the parole board’s use of “circumstances of the offense” as a basis for parole denials—something it concluded “is directly at odds with the requirement that maturity and rehabilitation be considered” and improperly “authorizes the Board to disregard evidence of the inmate’s subsequent rehabilitation and maturity.” 

As discussed in our previous post, each of the four plaintiffs in this case received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a homicide crime committed as a juvenile and had been denied parole. After the court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss, both sides sought summary judgment on their claims.

In finding for the plaintiffs on the constitutional count, the court found “that a number of defendants’ policies, practices, and customs combine to deprive those serving JLWOP sentences who receive parole hearings of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  These included:

  • limiting inmate access to information and opportunities to advocate consideration of the Miller factors;
  • prohibiting inmates from viewing their parole files, including the prehearing report that largely guides the format and content of the hearings;
  • permitting only one “delegate” at a hearing to speak on the inmate’s behalf, and only about reentry (not, for example, legal issues);
  • preventing access to victim presentations, and permitting victim representatives to argue issues of law;
  • focusing parole hearings not on the Miller factors but on the circumstances of the offense; and
  • denying parole for reasons not specific to Miller-impacted individuals and with inadequate explanations or guidance on next steps. 

While summarizing the relevant parole processes and procedures, the court noted that nearly 85 percent of those eligible for a hearing under Missouri’s juvenile parole statute did not receive a release date. It observed that while the plaintiffs’ parole denials were “barebones” and “boilerplate” (and do not provide any guidance about steps to take to become better suited for parole), the four plaintiffs were all denied at least partly because of the circumstances of the underlying offense. Further, the Board did not provide any explanation for imposing a five-year setback before the next hearing.

Reasoning that the Board lacks “objective tools, matrices, or criteria to evaluate those serving JLWOP sentences,” and uses wholly subjective standards that fail to ensure due consideration to the required factors, the Court held that these deficiencies combine to “deprive the Miller-impacted inmate of a meaningful and realistic opportunity to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation.” 

Of note to advocates: The court emphasized that to determine whether there has been a  constitutional violation, it must consider not only the relevant statutes and regulations as written, but as applied. In addition, it held that although “Graham and its progeny place the burden of demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation on the juvenile offender…the cases also place on the state the obligation to ensure that those offenders have a meaningful and realistic opportunity to make that showing”—that is, even if it does not affirmatively elicit relevant evidence, the state must allow parole-eligible inmates to bring such evidence to its attention. 

After a mediation, the parties are now in the process of submitting plans for compliance to the court. The defendants’ current iteration would allow counsel at hearings, mandate that the Board assist with pre-hearing record collection, and impose an across-the-board bar on the Board’s ability to deny parole to class members on the basis of seriousness of the offense. With luck, this decision will pave the way for similar parole challenges in other jurisdictions.