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Federal Court Finds Missouri Parole System Unconstitutional

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. District Court for the Western  District of Missouri entered an order on November 12, 2020, finding that Missouri’s parole system was unconstitutional, handing down a laundry list of corrections needed.

The problem was Missouri’s handling of parole revocation proceedings, which the Court said violated parolees’ constitutional rights. In a 55-page order, District Judge Stephen Bough found that the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) had been intentionally failing to provide counsel to eligible parolees and wrongly inducing them to waive their right to a revocation hearing. He found that DOC had been violating parolees’ due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

One of the prisoners who filed the lawsuit in federal court, Stephanie Gasca, was arrested on a parole violation in June 2017 for leaving a residential drug treatment program. She was eight months’ pregnant and held in the Greene County Jail for several days without prenatal or psychiatric health care.

She claimed in the lawsuit that the parole officer didn’t advise her of her right to counsel and led her to believe it was in her best interest to waive a formal revocation hearing. She had assumed she would end up on house arrest but instead was incarcerated at the Women’s Eastern reception and Diagnostic Center in Vandalia. She gave birth to her son while in prison.

The state countered that it had taken steps to correct the constitutional problems in its parole revocation process, and the Court recognized as much. But the Court pointed out that even though the state says it informs parolees of their right to counsel, only 15 percent of 470 parolees surveyed said they were told about that right.

Parolees also complained of being pressured into waiving revocation hearings and were not provided evidence of their parole violations. The Court noted that, “Even after defendants revised their policies, the rate of preliminary hearings conducted is 2.4% and the rate of revocations hearings conducted is 2.2%.”

The Court’s order set out several steps the DOC must take to fix its parole system. Included is that the DOC must ensure that eligible parolees are appointed a lawyer, provided evidence of their parole violation at least five days before the revocation hearing, and provided with notice of DOC’s revocation decisions.

“Having reviewed the evidence presented at the hearing and in the parties’ briefing on the matter, the Court finds constitutional deficiencies in the current parole revocation process remain and issues this Order to remedy such due process violations,” the Court concluded.

Amy Breihan, co-director of the nonprofit Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of parolees, said the Court’s order may reduce Missouri’s prison population. Missouri’s parole board revokes the parole of thousands of people every year, filling state prisons.

“Our hope is that the reforms that are required are going to mean that fewer people are going back behind bars, are going to mean that the prison churn will slow down and that’s always important, but especially now more than ever,” Breihan said.

The reduced prison population could be a welcome relief, reducing the spread of
COVID-19 as cases, once again, explode across the nation’s prisons. “That’s critically important to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Missouri prisons and surrounding (often rural) communities, whose hospitals are already at capacity,” Breihan said.

Breihan also expects an appeal by the state, since DOC had felt it made the necessary changes already. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed back on it,” she said. A DOC spokeswoman refused to comment on the case.

“We’re grateful that the court gave credence to the class members who testified or provided affidavits that told a different story, that told a story of their own personal experience in a very broken process,” Breihan said. See Gasca v. Precythe, Case No. 17-cv-04149-SRB, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mo.). 



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Related legal case

Gasca v. Precythe