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Eighth Circuit Upholds Key Parts of Missouri Parole Reform

On October 5, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed key parts of a lower court’s ruling instructing the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) to revise its system for revoking parole in order to protect prisoners’ due-process rights.

In 2017, several Missouri parolees filed suit challenging parole revocation procedures. DOC subsequently revised its policies and moved to dismiss the case. But the federal court for the Western District of Missouri denied that motion and ordered prison officials to make additional changes to the revocation process. An appeal by the state followed.

Taking up the district court’s first order, the Eighth Circuit noted that parolees must be notified about alleged violations prior to a preliminary hearing, but DOC did not always provide such notices. So directing the agency to “comply with its notice policies and to document its compliance” was correctly tailored to the violation and not an abuse of discretion, the Court said.

The lower court also required DOC to amend its revocation hearing form to provide a space to list alleged violations, and to indicate that parolees may retain their own counsel. The Eighth Circuit found the former requirement proper but called the latter overbroad. Parolees facing revocation are entitled to counsel in only “certain situations,” the Court said, citing Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973). It was sufficient for DOC to clarify that parolees may ask to be screened for eligibility for counsel or waive that right.

The district court found that DOC failed to disclose all relevant evidence to parolees at the revocation hearing stage, ordering any adverse evidence to be produced at least five days before a hearing. The appellate court affirmed that, too, rejecting the state’s argument that five days was excessive.

Pursuant to Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471,488 (1972), revocation hearings must be held “within a reasonable time,” the Court agreed but clarified that it found delays up to 90 days acceptable. Therefore it said the district court’s order that DOC must hold revocation hearings within 30 days was an abuse of discretion.

Further, while the state must provide parolees with a written statement of the reasons for parole revocations and the evidence relied upon, “[DOC’s] practices fall short of what is constitutionally required,” the Court wrote. Therefore, the lower court’s order requiring prison officials to provide such statements within 10 days was upheld; however, the statements do not need to include mitigating circumstances considered by parole officials.

A requirement that DOC make parole revocation appeal forms available on the same day that parolees receive their revocation decisions was affirmed. When the state creates an appeal process, the Court said, it must satisfy such due process requirements. However, another order that DOC must provide an explanation when denying revocation appeals was found to exceed the requirements outlined in Morrissey.

The Court noted that Gagnon requires the grounds for refusing parolees’ requests for appointed counsel to be entered on the record, and DOC did not do so. So it affirmed the lower court’s order requiring compliance with this, though only a “succinct statement” of the grounds must be provided.

Importantly, when parolees are found eligible for appointed counsel, the Court said that holding revocation hearings without counsel violates their due-process rights. Therefore it affirmed the district court’s orders that DOC must provide counsel when required and must also “create a policy for appointing eligible parolees state-funded counsel.”

Lastly, the Eighth Circuit rejected the state’s argument that Plaintiffs were required to add the Missouri Public Defender Commission as a party because it was responsible for appointing state-funded counsel. Since “the district court did not order [DOC] to appoint counsel,” the Court said the prison system “does not need another agency’s cooperation to refrain from holding illegal revocation hearings.”

Judge L. Steven Grasz entered a partial dissent, saying he would reject all the district court orders for “overstepping the judiciary’s constitutional bounds.” Plaintiffs were represented before the Court by attorneys Amy E. Breihan and Megan G. Crane of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis. See: Gasca v. Precythe, 83 F.4th 705 (8th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Gasca v. Precythe