Missouri’s parole revocation defense team among first in country

Program came about after a federal judge found Missouri wasn’t providing parolees appropriate legal counsel

By: - June 28, 2022 7:00 am

Last year, Gov. Mike Parson’s office asked the public defenders system to take on the program, offering $300,000 in funding for a four-person team to represent parole revocation cases all over the state (Getty Images).

For the first time in Missouri’s history, the state has a team of attorneys dedicated to defending people on the verge of having their parole revoked and facing more prison time. 

Missouri is the third state in the country to establish a parole revocation defense team, following Connecticut and New York. 

“We’re on the cutting edge,” said Stacey Lannert, district defender of the Missouri State Public Defender’s parole revocation defense team. “It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s new.”

Last year, Gov. Mike Parson’s office asked the public defenders system to take on the program, offering $300,000 in funding for a four-person team to represent parole revocation cases all over the state. 

The plan came after a federal judge found in November 2020 that the Missouri Department of Corrections was not appropriately providing people with legal representation during parole revocation hearings and mandated more than 20 reforms. A federal appeal is still underway.

“In the course of that, the governor’s office asked if we would provide this representation,” said Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. “We evaluated the situation and said, ‘Yes, we would.’ And so the governor put in the request for additional staff for us to handle those cases.”

Parole revocation accounts for roughly one-third of new prison admissions in Missouri, according to the lawsuit. Having an attorney helps keep people out of jail and decreases the prison population, Lannert said. 

However, at the same time Parson asked Fox to start the revocation defense team, the governor also signed off on the $3.6 million to hire 53 new attorneys

Those millions came after another lawsuit, where a circuit judge found the public defenders’ waitlists were unconstitutional. When the passage of these two buckets of money was happening, there were more than 1,000 people on the Missouri Public Defender System’s waitlist for an attorney. The waitlist has now been eliminated. 

The MacArthur Justice Center Missouri was involved in filing both of the lawsuits – the one on parole legal representation and the waitlists. 

While center co-director Amy Breihan believes having more state-funded legal representation is a positive step, she said the idea of putting this on the public defender system’s plate doesn’t seem “practical or feasible.” The center had advocated that the Missouri Department of Corrections, which oversees the parole system, contract with law firms. The public defender’s office was not a party in the parole lawsuit.

“We couldn’t quite understand how they could possibly represent more folks at these hearings, which are intended to move really quickly,” she said. “And I still don’t know.” 

The parole process

If people are facing claims that they violated their parole, they will go through a two-part process. Within 10 days, unless they waive the right, they will have a preliminary hearing at a jail close to the place of arrest.

If there is probable cause, then the people are transferred to one of the state’s four prisons where they will await a revocation hearing, which usually takes place within 30 days.

Breihan said having representation at preliminary hearings is crucial, particularly for those who face a technical violation and don’t need to go to prison where it’s harder to get them out. 

Lannert said they’ve been most effective in the parole revocation hearings because the attorneys can present evidence at that phase, such as medical records. 

“We can help flush out what programs are available, what alternative home plans might look like,” Lannert said.

In the parole system, people only have “limited” rights to state-funded legal representation at these hearings. Only people who fall into three categories are eligible — if they’re claiming innocence, if they aren’t mentally capable of representing themselves or if there are “complex mitigating circumstances” in their case.

In Missouri, the responsibility for “screening” whether a person is eligible for an attorney falls on the parole officers. 

In the lawsuit, the federal judge found that not only were parole officers across the state not doing these screenings, but they were encouraging incarcerated individuals to waive their rights to preliminary hearings and parole revocation hearings – which often sealed the worst possible fate for the individuals. 

According to the lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, a survey found the rate of preliminary hearings conducted was 2.4% and the rate of revocation hearings conducted is 2.2%. 

“The evidence indicates this low rate is due, at least in part, to pressure on parolees to waive their hearings,” the federal court wrote in November 2020. 

 For example, one person testified that he waived his preliminary and revocation hearings because his parole officer told him he would likely be released and that conducting hearings “would just slow the process.” His parole was ultimately revoked.

New training for screenings

Some parole officers and their supervisors said they didn’t know the screenings were their responsibility, according to testimony in the lawsuit, and they didn’t understand that there were three reasons a person could apply for an attorney.

Most thought it was only if the individuals had intellectual disabilities or mental health disorders and needed assistance in presenting their position to the parole board. 

Still, that reason makes up the majority of cases Lannert’s team has received from the corrections department. 

Lannert said her office worked closely with the department to create a training program for their employees across the state, which was held in November. 

The third reason is the most challenging to explain, she said. She uses the scenario that a person couldn’t find a job because they have a previous felony so they have a difficult time getting transportation.

“We’ve actually had a couple cases where complex mitigating circumstances were found,” she said. “More frequently, we find that number one: incapable of effectively speaking for self, but the (parole officers) are flushing out those other due process factors also.”

The defense team’s work really got up and running after the correction department’s training, and so far they’ve had 160 cases.

However, Breihan said this caseload doesn’t seem quite enough.

“The numbers of cases that are being referred out to the public defender are such that it raises questions for me as to whether they’re properly screening,” Breihan said. 

The lawsuit alleged that every year, the parole board was revoking parole for 3,000 to 7,000 individuals without offering anyone an attorney, and often without informing parolees of their right to counsel. 

Lannert said she has no way of knowing how many people have applied or been screened for legal representation because that’s done by the corrections department. 

However, she believes they’re beginning to make a difference in a population that has long been left without legal counsel.

“We’re giving representation to people who haven’t had that option for decades,” Lannert said. “And I do feel that we’re able to accomplish quite a bit. Our clients appreciate us being in the room with them.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.