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MacAuthur Justice Center Files Lawsuit Over Missouri Parole Revocations

by Matt Clarke

In August 2017, the MacArthur Justice Center (MJC) in St. Louis filed a federal civil rights suit against the Missouri Department of Corrections and its Division of Probation and Parole (Parole Board). At issue were alleged violations of the constitutional rights of parolees facing revocation hearings, which often resulted in their reincarceration.

Missouri has 15,000 people on parole, of whom 3,000 to 7,000 face violations and revocation hearings annually. Despite that large number of revocations, the suit notes, the Parole Board held just 250 revocation hearings in the three years between March 2014 and March 2017. MJC Director Mae Quinn called the situation in Missouri “horrific.”

“Here we are in the 21st century running an assembly-line parole violation system that just pushes people back into our prisons without any real legal protections,” she said. “And yet such practices were rendered unconstitutional 50 years ago.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has considered several cases involving parole revocation hearings, ordering states to establish procedures to protect the due process rights of parolees.

There must be both a preliminary hearing and a final hearing, at which evidence of the violation is presented. Parolees may need to be appointed counsel, too.

Since parole is considered a civil rather than criminal matter, the right to counsel is not guaranteed in every case. But practically, most fall under circumstances where appointment of counsel should be offered – whenever there is evidence to mitigate the violation, when the parolee suffers from mental illness or poor literacy, or if there is a plausible claim that he or she is innocent of the alleged violation.

Stephanie Gasca, 30, is one of the named plaintiffs in the MJC suit. In June 2017, when she was eight months pregnant, Gasca was taken into custody for failing to keep a required meeting with her parole agent. Encouraged to sign a waiver of her hearing rights to expedite her freedom, she was instead returned to prison where she then gave birth. At no time was she offered a right to counsel. Her child is now in the care of her mother.

Timothy Gallagher is another named plaintiff. He was one of the few parolees in Missouri who received a revocation hearing. But MJC discovered that former Parole Board member Don Ruzicka had turned the hearings into a bizarre game – trying to get parolees to say certain words, like “hootenanny” or “platypus,” to which he had assigned points. He resigned on June 12, 2017 and Gallagher wants to know if Ruzicka’s focus on wordplay affected the outcome of his hearing.

The MJC’s lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that the Parole Board’s policies and practices directly violate the due process requirements of Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973) by failing to inform parolees facing revocation proceedings of their right to a preliminary hearing and (in some circumstances) appointed counsel, while also pressuring them to waive the hearing and their associated rights.

According to court documents, a parolee charged with violating a parole condition is immediately pressured to sign a preliminary hearing waiver – before even being told they have a right to such a hearing. Additionally, parolees are almost never informed of their right to appointed counsel under most circumstances.

The suit states a high percentage of revocations are based on technical violations that do not involve new crimes – such as failing to check in with a parole agent – but the evidence supporting such allegations is often unreliable or open to interpretation.

MJC also claims that parole files are fraught with error, noting by way of example one file stating a parolee was charged with an assault that, in fact, another person had been charged with. Moreover, revocations are often based solely on the fact that a parolee was arrested – without waiting for or ignoring altogether the outcome of a trial. Parolees are not permitted access to their files, not even to look for evidence to rebut charges they believe are false or unsubstantiated.

With almost half of its prison admissions attributable to parole revocations, Missouri is sixth in the nation for parole violations that result in re-imprisonment. Even as incarceration rates are dropping slightly, Missouri’s rate has increased.

“Currently we have the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, the fastest-growing female prison population, and we are at the very top of the list for returning parolees to our prisons,” said MJC’s Quinn. “Obviously, the system is broken.”

The lawsuit remains pending with a bench trial scheduled for April 15, 2019. See: Gasca v. Precythe, U.S.D.C. (W.D. MO), Case No. 2:17-cv-04149-SRB. 

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Related legal case

Gasca v. Precythe