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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Issa Kohler-Hausmann ’08 and ACLU of Wisconsin Challenge State’s Parole System

Associate Professor of Law Issa Kohler-Hausmann ’08 is among a group of lawyers who worked with ACLU Wisconsin to file a federal class-action lawsuit to halt the state’s refusals to release parole-eligible people sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes they committed while they were children. 

The United States 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 maintains that the current parole system, which gives parole commissioners unfettered discretion to deny release, fails to provide a meaningful second chance for people who committed crimes as children. 

“Wisconsin’s parole system unnecessarily keeps people behind bars who are no longer the impulsive children who committed serious crimes, but are mature, reformed adults with real contributions to make to their families and their communities,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director, ACLU of Wisconsin. “The constitution requires that they be given a chance at redemption in the free world.”

Recent Supreme Court cases have recognized a substantial volume of neuroscience evidence that children and adolescents have not yet formed their identities and are more impulsive, subject to peer pressure, less able to extricate themselves from circumstances conducive to crime, and less able to appreciate the effects of their actions than adults. As a consequence, the Court has ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on disproportionate punishment of children means that punishments for juveniles must reflect this reality by ensuring a second chance at freedom for those who mature into responsible adults.

“In the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings requiring states to give redeemable juvenile lifers a meaningful opportunity for parole release, states across the country have revisited their parole systems to bring them into compliance with constitutional requirements,” wrote Kohler-Hausmann and co-counsel Avery Gilbert. “Wisconsin has not, and it must now recognize that it is out of step with national trends and the constitution.” The two, with the ACLU’s Dupuis, further discussed the case in an op-ed in The Capital Times of Madison. “With young people facing the most severe sanctions and the possibility of losing their lives to prison, we have a moral obligation to undertake meaningful reform of parole here in Wisconsin and nationwide,” they wrote. 

In addition to Kohler-Hausmann and Gilbert, the legal team included two Wisconsin law firms, Quarles & Brady and Foley & Lardner, which both provided pro bono assistance. Hillary Vedvig ’17, an Associate with Foley & Lardner, was one of the firm’s lawyers on the case. Saul Ramirez ’19 also contributed research and assistance.

The named plaintiffs include people who were convicted of crimes when they were as young as 14 years old. All committed serious crimes that resulted in loss of life or serious injury and devastated families, but all have also profoundly changed, according to the suit. Despite evidence of maturation and rehabilitation by the plaintiffs, the parole commission has denied their release, often repeatedly, well after the dates they were made eligible for parole by the sentencing judges under Wisconsin law. The Parole Commission systematically denies release to juvenile lifers, the suit states, even though, in many cases, parole commissioners explicitly recognize that the plaintiffs have reformed. 

One example is Carlos King, who has been in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16. Now, 22 years later, as a 38-year-old, King’s advocates say he has matured from the impulsive and desperate teenager he once was.

“I feel incredible sadness for the loss of life that I caused and the suffering to my victims and their families,” said King, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Despite a clean institutional record, he has been denied release to parole supervision four times. 

The lawsuit seeks an order that more than 100 incarcerated individuals should be entitled to parole consideration under the standard of demonstrated rehabilitation and maturation, and that the procedures used to evaluate parole applications of these “juvenile lifers” provide adequate protections against arbitrary and erroneous denials. The lawsuit argues that the process should focus on rehabilitation and maturity, rather than the nature of a crime.