JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled a group of Missouri prisoners convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life behind bars without an opportunity for parole can move forward with a lawsuit against the state's prison system.
The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, which filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, on Monday announced the ruling by U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey. Attorneys for the four named plaintiffs argued in court documents that they're not getting a meaningful chance at parole, despite recent court rulings and a new Missouri law requiring that.
Attorney General Josh Hawley's office, representing the Department of Corrections, had tried to get the judge to throw out the lawsuit. Hawley's Deputy Chief of Staff Loree Anne Paradise declined comment, citing the pending case.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles, which the MacArthur Justice Center says applies to about 80 people in Missouri prisons. State lawmakers in 2016 passed a law that allows juveniles who had previously received those mandatory sentences to get an opportunity for release after 25 years in prison.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs alleged that of 20 hearings for prisoners newly eligible for release under that law, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole has granted parole for only two, according to a June court filing.
"This decision reminds the State that they can't simply slap parole eligibility on a young inmate's prison term and expect to have satisfied their constitutional duties," MacArthur Justice Center attorney Amy Breihan said in a statement. "Children are different. The Supreme Court has said that repeatedly, and here the Court expressly recognized that axiom applies not just at sentencing, but to parole proceedings as well."
Plaintiffs claim that parole board members are mostly focused on the original offense that prisoners were convicted of. In court filings their attorneys asked Laughrey to require the board to offer those prisoners a chance at release based on "demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
Lawyers for the prisoners also are asking the judge to rule that the current parole process for people convicted as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole is unconstitutional. They want the case to be a class-action suit, but the judge hasn't yet ruled on that.
Laughrey also ordered the Department of Corrections to provide records of parole proceedings to the plaintiffs, which previously had been denied.