MADISON — The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled last week that a lawsuit alleging that Wisconsin is unconstitutionally denying the possibility of parole to juveniles sentenced to life in prison can proceed. 

The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of Wisconsin, with support from the law firms Quarles & Brady and Foley & Larnder, along with attorneys Issa Kohler-Hausmann and Avery Gilbert.

The court said that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi, which dealt with what a judge must do before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, does not bar this case, which deals with the separate question of what standard and procedures should be used when considering life-sentenced juveniles eligible for release to parole supervision after the minimum term of imprisonment has been served.

The Supreme Court has held that states must give most juveniles sentenced to life in prison a chance to earn parole release based on a standard of rehabilitation and reform. The suit reveals that the current parole system, which gives parole commissioners unchecked discretion to deny release, fails to provide a meaningful second chance of freedom to people who committed crimes as children, violating both due process rights and the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Filed in 2019, the lawsuit seeks an order that the hundred-plus people incarcerated as juveniles should be entitled to release upon demonstrated rehabilitation and maturation, and that the procedures used to evaluate parole applications of these “juvenile lifers” must provide adequate protection against arbitrary and erroneous denials.

The named plaintiffs represented in the case have all demonstrated a profound degree of rehabilitation and change, but the parole commission has repeatedly refused to grant their release, well after the dates they were made eligible for parole by the sentencing judges under Wisconsin law.

“ Our case has been allowed to continue as we demand that the state of Wisconsin provide children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole a legitimate chance to prove themselves worthy of release and redemption,” said Emma Shakeshaft, staff attorney researcher of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “The current system is stacked against juvenile lifers, and it neither provides them with the adequate opportunities nor tools to show they are ready for parole. Wisconsin’s refusal to grant this population a meaningful opportunity for parole  constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and we are asking for a procedural change that would allow juvenile lifers who have long reached adulthood and served decades in prison to demonstrate rehabilitation and return to their communities.”

Shakeshaft added: “There is an established body of research showing that youth act impulsively, are prone to lapses in judgment, and have not yet developed the capacity for situational evaluation that adults have, all factors that make them more susceptible to making mistakes and engaging in criminal activity. While individuals should be held accountable for their crimes, researchers and the Supreme Court have recognized the importance of this fundamental distinction between youth and adults. The Supreme Court has made clear that youth have a remarkable ability to change over time, yet Wisconsin still systematically refuses to take this into account when determining eligibility for parole for those who committed crimes while children and are now decades into adult maturity.”