ST. LOUIS (CN) — Missouri’s practice of making juveniles who are sentenced to life in prison for murder eligible for parole goes “over and above” the threshold for humane punishment, state attorneys argued Tuesday before the en banc Eighth Circuit.
At issue is the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 ruling in Miller vs. Alabama that a mandatory life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A related 2016 decision by the high court in Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which held that Miller should be applied retroactively, was also heavily discussed during the 40-minute teleconference hearing.
“It goes over and above what the district court required in Montgomery, because it requires consideration of the youth of the individual at the time of the circumstance,” Michael Talent of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office told the court, defending the state's parole system.
Amy Breihan, of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, painted a different picture while arguing on behalf of the juvenile inmates who brought the case.
“Even in instances where we presented that evidence to the parole board in the mitigation packet, there's testimony from board members that they rarely read those materials before voting,” Breihan argued.
She continued, “So, the customs of the board are such that even where efforts were made by pro bono counsel to present evidence of youth and immaturity, it was not being considered, and also when you look at the form that the board is using to make decisions, there’s no reflection of Miller characteristics, the Miller factors in those forms.”
Breihan represents a class of prisoners who, as juveniles, were given mandatory life without parole sentences before Miller. After the Miller and Montgomery decisions, state lawmakers amended the sentencing statute for first-degree murder to include the possibility of parole.
The class argued the Missouri parole system violates their right to due process because it denies them access to the parole files; they are limited to one delegate who cannot present legal argument or evidence; the decision form only provides a boilerplate explanation for the decision; and Missouri relies solely on objective criteria.
A district court agreed, finding that juveniles should not have a mandatory minimum sentence of life, prompting the appeal to the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit.
The full appeals court questioned Breihan about how this case did not amount to asking the court for a complete resentencing for the class.
“The class is not arguing here that it received fair process and it has a problem with an outcome,” Breihan answered. “The class is arguing that the process was not fair.”
She noted 37 of the class members received release dates from the Missouri parole board since the lower court entered its ruling.
“I think it begs the question as to how could these additional procedural requirements seem so onerous, if the state was able to implement them and comply with them over the years while this appeal was pending?” Breihan said.
Talent jumped on the resentencing issue during his rebuttal.
“What the inmate class wanted here, they wanted judicial resentencing,” Talent told the court. “They did not like the policy choices Missouri made to comply with Montgomery.”
He added that the Supreme Court had held “that policy decisions belong to the state as long as you comply with the minimum requirements … the minimum requirements set forth in Montgomery is parole eligibility.”
Another related issue before the appeals court, which was briefed but not argued, was whether the state should be required to pay for counsel for juveniles in future parole hearings.
The district court found that the state should not be required to pay, prompting a cross appeal from the class.
“An inmate jailed as a teenager is unlikely to have the legal knowledge, evidence gathering, or communication skills necessary to effectively present a case for release,” the class argued in its brief. “Thus, state-funded counsel is essential to satisfying the Supreme Court’s mandate.”
Missouri, in its brief, countered by arguing that the class failed to cite any precedent that held the Constitution requires states to provide inmates with counsel during parole proceedings.
“Even if the inmates had a due process interest in parole release, the record does not reflect the need for counsel,” the brief states. “None of the Board members is an attorney, and the Board does not have the capacity or authority to consider legal arguments or make judicial determinations during parole hearings.”
There is no timetable for a decision from the court.