Missouri’s parole process for youth sentenced to life is unconstitutional, court says

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Missouri’s parole review board violates the constitutional rights of juveniles sentenced to life without parole, a federal appeals court said in an opinion released Friday.

The case was brought by four Missouri inmates who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole.

The parole board’s practices deprives inmates “of their Eighth Amendment right to a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The case stems from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision which ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to a mandatory life term without parole and another ruling applying that retroactively. The high court has repeatedly concluded that “children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes,” in terms of both culpability and capacity for reform.

To comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions, the Missouri legislature passed a bill in 2016 allowing inmates sentenced to life as juveniles to petition for parole after serving 25 years.

But the appeals court said, “Missouri’s parole review process is lacking in several key respects.”

Inmates are prohibited from reviewing their parole files, making it nearly impossible to identify factual errors or respond to evidence, the court said. They can have one “delegate” attend the hearing to address issues related to how they would transition into the community, but the delegate is not allowed to talk about trauma or abuse an inmate may have suffered leading up to the crime.

Victims are allowed to speak for any length of time and are not limited in what they can talk about, as are prosecutors and police.

The board also “obfuscates” considerations specific to juvenile offenders and fails to adequately focus on a person’s efforts towards rehabilitation, the appeals court said.

Friday’s decision was applauded by the Juvenile Law Center based in Philadelphia, the ACLU of Missouri and the MacArthur Justice Center, which brought the litigation.

Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said there had been about 100 former juveniles serving mandatory life sentences in Missouri with 17 released since the lawsuit was filed. A handful of other people have had release dates set for later this year or next year.

The appeals court’s decision was exciting, Breihan said, but she reiterated that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision was more than nine years old.

“There are still dozens of people who were sent to die behind bars as kids with no other option who are still waiting for a meaningful opportunity for release,” she said. “It’s always a reminder of how long that arc towards justice is.”

Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center, said similar litigation on the parole process for juveniles sentenced to life has been brought in Florida, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Wisconsin, and that the decision impacting Missouri could influence these other cases.

“We’re building a body of favorable case law that states need to do what the court required in these sentencing decisions,” Levick said.

The Missouri Department of Corrections said it does not comment on litigation.

Twenty-six states including Kansas have abolished juvenile life without parole sentences, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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