Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Montgomery decision ordered resentencing or parole hearings for thousands of inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, litigation like a recent class action by Missouri prisoners shows how some states are struggling to offer those inmates meaningful opportunities for release.
In one of the latest examples of the battle between convicts, their advocates and the state agencies that control their freedom, a Missouri federal judge ruled this month that the state's parole process for juveniles sentenced to life in prison fails to consider their maturity and rehabilitation, in violation of their constitutional rights. The Oct. 12 ruling came in a class action brought by more than 90 Missouri Department of Corrections prisoners initially given mandatory life without parole sentences as juveniles.
The Supreme Court found such mandatory sentencing unconstitutional in 2012's Miller v. Alabama ruling, a finding it then made retroactive in 2016's Montgomery v. Louisiana decision. Montgomery added that affected prisoners "must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption," either via parole or resentencing.
After Montgomery was decided, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation enabling those serving juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP, sentences to petition for parole after 25 years. But according to U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, the parole board has not met "the requirement that maturity and rehabilitation be considered" for such petitioners, 85 percent of whom have been denied a release date.
"Permitting the board to base a denial of parole ... 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," the judge wrote.
The case is one of several in federal and state courts around the country that challenge the ways different states have responded to the high court rulings. According to class counsel Amy E. Breihan of the MacArthur Justice Center, states like Pennsylvania have decided to resentence the so-called "Miller kids," while others, like Missouri, have taken the parole route.
"Inevitably, there's a disagreement over 'What does this parole consideration have to look like?'" she said. "In Missouri, for all intents and purposes, they were really doing things the way that they were doing for everybody else. And that just was not adequate. So unfortunately, I think that the decision by the Supreme Court in Montgomery kind of helped create some of the discrepancy as far as how to implement the decision."
Breihan's named clients in the Missouri case — Norman Brown, Ralph McElroy, Sidney Roberts and Theron Roland — were all sentenced to mandatory JLWOP for homicide offenses before they turned 18. Each petitioned for parole after Missouri passed its post-Montgomery law, but according to court documents, they were largely blocked from presenting evidence of the way they have matured during the past quarter-century behind bars.
The inmates said they were only allowed one "delegate" in their hearings, who was barred from discussing anything other than "issues related to transition to the community," such as home plans. The board also kept the prisoners and their attorneys from viewing the parole files guiding the hearings and the board's ultimate decision. All four petitioners were denied parole.
For Judge Laughrey, this lack of access to things like victim and prosecutor statements, as well as the muzzling of petitioners' delegates, meant "the Miller-impacted inmate cannot have the 'meaningful' opportunity that the law requires."
Her ruling gave the Missouri DOC 60 days to present a compliance plan to bring its process for Miller kids in line with constitutional requirements. The plan must also include a proposal for giving a "meaningful and realistic opportunity for release" to those whose prior bids were already denied.
"The Supreme Court has said repeatedly, 'Youth are categorically different from adults,'" Breihan said. "So it stands to reason that when they have parole hearings, their parole hearings should be categorically different from adult parole hearings, as a matter of constitutional law."
This month's ruling could be a sign of things to come, according to Heather Renwick, legal director for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. In Flores et al. v. Stanford et al., a New York federal suit by a class of Miller kids against the Empire State's parole board, the prisoners have brought allegations similar to the Missouri prisoners', claiming parole board officers regularly deny release to juvenile lifers "with short conclusory opinions citing only factors present at the time of conviction" without speaking to whether they demonstrate reform.
"District court judges will have to look to the specific facts in the states where other litigation has been brought, but I think that this decision sets an important, if not legal precedent, I think conceptual precedent, that will be cited in other cases around the country," Renwick said.
In its defense, the Missouri DOC had argued Montgomery's citation to a Wyoming statute, which permitted juvenile homicide offenders to apply for parole after 25 years but did not provide any special parole procedures, demonstrated that there are no special requirements for Miller kids in parole proceedings.
But Judge Laughrey quoted the sentence immediately following that citation in her order, noting that the high court included maturity as a factor when it said allowing parole ensures that "juveniles ... who have since matured" will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence.
The Missouri DOC declined to comment on whether it planned to comply with the court's order or appeal. Matthew Knepper of Husch Blackwell LLP, who served as pro bono co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said that while this month's ruling is validating, "the battle's not over." Last week, Breihan filed a motion to clarify whether she, Knepper and the other attorneys for the Miller kids would be allowed to weigh in on what the proper remedy should be.
"It's a nice victory to have someone say that Miller does apply to my clients, and they do get meaningful relief," Knepper said. "That's what we've been searching for for a long time. I never dreamed when we took these cases on initially, that six years later, we'd still be battling it. The state of Missouri has 60 days ... we'll see what their plan is."
The Missouri DOC is represented by Michael Joseph Spillane and Andrew J. Crane of the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
The inmates are represented by Amy E. Breihan of the MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, and Matthew D. Knepper, Carlota Hopinks-Baul, Denyse L. Jones, Jordan T. Ault and Sarah L. Zimmerman of Husch Blackwell LLP.
The case is Norman Brown et al. v. Anne L. Precythe et al., case number 2:17-cv-04082, in the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri.
The related case in New York is Flores et al. v. Tina M. Stanford et al., case number 7:18-cv-02468, in the U.S. District Court for Southern New York.
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.