State needs to draw up plan to deal with juveniles sentenced to life without parole, judge says

By John Breslin | Oct 23, 2018

A federal judge recently ordered the state of Missouri to draw up a plan to properly manage the sentences of juveniles previously sentenced to prison for life without parole.

U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, in her Oct. 12 ruling, said the state's Parole Board, which controls what sentences those inmates will serve, is not taking into consideration the "maturity and rehabilitation" of the offenders.

Close to 90 individuals sentenced to life without parole as teenagers, all convicted of murder, are currently being held in Missouri prisons. Laughrey's ruling was in regard to a lawsuit filed by four inmates.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing those under 18 to life without parole was unconstitutional as it violated the 8th Amendment bar on cruel and unusual punishment. The same court ruled in 2016 that this applies retroactively.

Amy Breihan   Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center website photo

But Missouri has fought "long and hard" to make it difficult to apply what the Supreme Court mandated, that inmates be given a "meaningful and realistic opportunity to secure release upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation," the St. Louis-headquartered MacArthur Justice Center, represented the inmates in the lawsuit, said.

"Essentially this is about whether the Missouri Parole Board is properly reviewing this class of individuals," Amy Breihan, the center's director, told the St. Louis Record. "Instead, the parole board looks at the circumstances of the underlying crime."

The Missouri Legislature did not move to marry state law with the Supreme Court decision until 2016, after the federal high court's second ruling on juvenile offenders. The legislature passed SB590, which allowed those sentenced as juveniles to apply for parole after 25 years.

But the law created more problems than solutions, as the courts effectively handed over control to the parole board, which in turn failed to approach cases through the prism of the Supreme Court decision, and with little judicial oversight, Breihan said.

Laughrey agreed with the plaintiffs and found constitutional violations, Breihan said, adding that it is now the state's responsibility to propose a plan. It has 90 days to do so from the day of the ruling. The MacArthur Center has filed a motion asking that the plaintiffs be allowed to draw up their own plan.

Breihan said the plaintiffs in this federal case also wanted to shine a light on what is described as the "opaque" nature of the parole board's deliberations, problems over accessing information and records, and how hearings can be stacked against offenders.

"These are some of things we asked for –, increased transparency, ensure a focus on proper factors, including maturity and rehabilitation rather than the underlying crime, and access to parole files, which was historically kept from the prisoner," Breihan said.

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