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Missouri Still Violating Parole Revocation Procedures, Federal Judge Says

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The state has sent many parolees back to prison for technical violations of their parole such as crossing a state line, missing a parole appointment or losing a job because their employer found out about their criminal record.

Missouri’s parole board revokes the parole of thousands of individuals every year, often without providing an attorney or informing parolees of their right to counsel.

Nearly two years ago, Missouri acknowledged that its policies for revoking parole were unconstitutional. But, the state claimed it had fixed them.

Now a federal judge is saying it did not and has ordered Missouri to take measures to correct them.

“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,” U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough wrote in a 55-page order Thursday.

The order comes after parolees filed a class action lawsuit in 2017 alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections and its Division of Probation and Parole had blatantly disregarded U.S. Supreme Court decisions establishing procedures to protect parolees’ due process rights.

Missouri’s parole board revokes the parole of thousands of individuals every year, often without providing an attorney or informing parolees of their right to counsel.

The state has sent many parolees back to prison for technical violations of their parole such as crossing a state line, missing a parole appointment or losing a job because their employer found out about their criminal record.

In his order, Bough recognized that the state had made “significant changes” in its parole revocation procedures since the lawsuit was filed. But he said in many cases they were inconsistent or weren’t being applied in practice.

For example, even though the state says it now informs parolees of their right to counsel, no more than 15% of 470 surveyed parolees reported they were informed of that right, Bough noted.

Other parolees said they were pressured to waive their hearings or were not provided with evidence of their parole violations.

“Even after Defendants revised their policies, the rate of preliminary hearings conducted is 2.4% and the rate of revocation hearings conducted is 2.2%,” Bough wrote.

Bough’s order contains a lengthy laundry list of both mandated and suggested practices to remedy the deficiencies he found. Among other things, it orders the corrections department to ensure that eligible parolees have an attorney; requires improvements to the screening process; requires the department to provide evidence at least five days before revocation hearings; and requires it to provide parolees with written notification of its revocation decisions.

“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,” said Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, which brought the suit on behalf of parolees.

“It’s going to be important for curbing the spread of COVID-19 in Missouri prisons and the surrounding communities, which are often rural and whose hospitals are already at capacity.”

Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency was still reviewing Bough’s order and did not have a comment “at this time.”

Breihan said she thought the department might appeal the order since it insisted at the June hearing that it had corrected the constitutional deficiencies it had acknowledged.

“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. “So, given that sort of position by [the Department of Corrections] that they think everything was hunky dory, I wouldn't be surprised if they pushed back on it.”

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