JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge has ordered sweeping changes to how Missouri's parole board treats prisoners sentenced to life behind bars for crimes they committed as children or teenagers.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey this month ordered new parole hearings for prisoners previously denied release. She also barred the board from denying parole based solely on the seriousness of those prisoners' crimes and ordered new training for board members, along with a laundry list of other regulations aimed at making the process fairer for those inmates.
Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Garry Brix said Wednesday that the agency respects the ruling and will comply.
The ruling comes after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Missouri's prison system . They alleged that the parole board didn't give them a fair shot at freedom, despite a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found life sentences for juveniles without parole are unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
"These decisions should be based on who these men and women have become over time, not their worst act as children," said Amy Breihan, Missouri director of the MacArthur Justice Center. The center represented the prisoners in the lawsuit.
In response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state legislators 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 the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole didn't give those prisoners a meaningful chance at freedom because the board has denied release in 85 percent of cases it has heard and has yet to free anyone.
Other changes ordered by Laughrey include allowing prisoners to bring four people with them to a parole hearing, including attorneys and expert witnesses who can advocate for them. Prisoners now have a right to their un-redacted parole records and recordings of their parole hearings.
Laughrey said mandatory new training for parole board members on juvenile release is "critical because multiple Board members and parole staff recently not only have exhibited unprofessional behavior that suggests a lack of seriousness, but also have demonstrated a lack of familiarity with applicable regulations and law."
An inspector general's report in 2017 found an employee and a parole board member, who has since resigned, toyed with inmates during parole hearings .