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Wisconsin’s parole system violates the U.S. Constitution by effectively creating life-without-parole sentences for people who committed heinous crimes as juveniles, and they should instead be offered meaningful opportunities for release by demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, contends that the state parole system “fails to provide this meaningful opportunity; thus, by ostensibly creating a life-without-parole sentence, it violates the U.S. Constitution.”

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU Foundation of Wisconsin and lawyers from Quarles & Brady and Foley & Lardner, along with two other lawyers, on behalf of five men who were all convicted as teen-agers of first-degree intentional homicide or attempted first-degree intentional homicide and have been denied parole multiple times.

The lawsuit does not ask that their convictions be overturned or invalidated.

Instead, plaintiffs are asking that the state Parole Commission give the men “a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as of their parole eligibility date, based on the constitutionally mandated standard of demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

Only a “minuscule” number of parole-eligible juvenile lifers — fewer than six out of more than 120 — have been paroled during the past 15 years, the lawsuit states.

“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,” Larry Dupuis, legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement. “The constitution requires that they be given a chance at redemption in the free world.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, the lawsuit contends, “has held that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles, even those who commit heinous crimes, to life without parole, except for the ‘rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’”

Absent that finding, states must offer those who committed crimes as juveniles a “meaningful opportunity” to seek release “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

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Members of the Wisconsin Parole Commission and the state Department of Corrections, the lawsuit states, “consistently deny release on parole to juvenile lifers who demonstrate unmistakable maturity, rehabilitation and reform, and a low risk to public safety, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

According to the lawsuit, the state Parole Commission also violates the Sixth Amendment by relying on facts that were not vetted by a jury or admitted by the defendants at the time of their convictions.

Two of the plaintiffs committed first-degree intentional homicide at age 14. One of them, Thaddeus Karow, who was convicted in Winnebago County, was at the time of his trial in 1988 the youngest person to be tried as an adult in Wisconsin history. He has been denied parole six times.

Defendants in the case include the three-member state Parole Commission, along with Kevin Carr, secretary-designee of the DOC, and Mark Heise, director of DOC’s Bureau of Classification and Movement. A DOC spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit cites scientific studies noting differences between children and adults and showing children’s culpability is diminished. Lack of maturity, studies show, “often results in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions” leading to reckless behavior.

The U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing those differences, the lawsuit argues, have set limits on the punishment that can be imposed on children, even for very serious crimes, because they have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” Sentencing a child to life without parole is unconstitutionally excessive, the court’s rulings have concluded.

In Wisconsin, children as young as 10 are required to be tried as adults for first-degree intentional homicide. And while the Wisconsin courts are required to impose life sentences for first-degree intentional homicide, the lawsuit states, those sentenced prior to the start of the state’s “truth in sentencing” law in 2000 are eligible for parole consideration by the Parole Commission. For those convicted after 2000, circuit court judges are supposed to decide whether to release them on extended supervision.

For those who face the Parole Commission, the lawsuit charges that the commission doesn’t base its release decisions on whether those convicted have matured and been rehabilitated and present a low risk to society.

“Instead, the Commission denies parole despite clear records and explicit findings of rehabilitation and maturation on the grounds that, in their subjective judgment, release would ‘depreciate the seriousness of the crime’ or simply that, often in the view of a single commissioner, parole applicant needs to serve ‘more time’ in prison,” the lawsuit states.

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