Thousands of people on parole in Missouri who were incarcerated for violating their parole may now be eligible for relief in a class action lawsuit alleging those re-incarcerations were illegal.
The certification of the case as a class action by U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough puts pressure on the state to resolve the lawsuit, which argues thousands of inmates have been re-incarcerated for alleged parole violations without benefit of hearings or legal representation.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office, which is defending the corrections department, did not immediately return a phone call from KCUR seeking comment.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2017 by the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, alleging that the corrections department and its Division of Probation and Parole ignored U.S. Supreme Court decisions establishing procedures to protect parolees’ due process rights.
“These cases have been around since the’70s, so there’s really no excuse for Missouri being this behind the times in providing these constitutional rights to parolees,” said Amy Breihan, director of the McArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office.
Breihan said many parolees have been re-incarcerated for technical violations such as crossing the state line.
“You live in Kansas City and maybe you cross the state line into Kansas City, Kansas, for work,” Breihan said. “They’re most often for those kinds of alleged violations and not for committing other crimes.”
In 2017, about 6,600 parolees went through the revocation process, Breihan said, “and of those, at least 90 percent had their parole revoked and were sent back to prison.”
The class certified by Bough could cover as many as 15,000 paroled inmates.
In a couple of decisions in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that while parole revocation hearings don’t trigger the full panoply of due process rights, they trigger certain minimum due process requirements. Those include a preliminary hearing and a formal revocation hearing.
Breihan said the Missouri case needs to be seen in the broader context of mental health issues and even the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“A lot of these individuals who are being sent back to prison without due process have mental health issues. They have addiction issues and those are not being addressed,” Breihan said.
“They're just being reincarcerated and their lives and their communities are continually disrupted. It’s not a central focus of the case, but I think it's important to think about why these folks are being sent back to prison and how it is impacting their lives and their ability get back on steady ground.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.