Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lawsuit claims Illinois' juvenile parole system is unconstitutional

By Jamey Dunn

A civil rights advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit against the state this week claiming that the parole process for juvenile offenders violates their civil rights.

According to the suit, juvenile offenders who are accused of parole violations are often persuaded to waive their rights to a preliminary hearing. “Class members sign the form believing that it will allow them to return home sooner. In reality, the signature allows the [Prisoner Review Board] to avoid conducting a preliminary hearing and ensures that the youth will remain incarcerated until the final revocation hearing, regardless of the validity of the alleged parole violation charge,” said the complaint, which was filed by the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School on behalf of all youth currently on parole. The center estimates the number of youth on parole as more than 1,000.

According to a recent report from Juvenile Justice Commission, 85 percent of juveniles who faced losing their parole and returning to a detention center between December 2009 and May 2010 waived their right to a preliminary hearing. Such hearings are so infrequent that commission members were unable to attend one when researching their report. Alexa Van Brunt, clinical assistant professor of law and attorney for the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, said that many children do not understand the choice they are making and are led to believe that waiving the hearing may let them get out of incarceration sooner. However, she said that some could be released immediately if it were found in the preliminary hearing that there were no grounds to lock them up again.

Van Brunt says once juveniles make it to their final hearing before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, most have had no legal representation, ability to gather evidence or opportunity to respond to their accusers. “Youth just totally lack the ability to adequately represent themselves,” she said. “They have no way to find evidence on their own behalf. They have no subpoena power. They have no way to track down evidence.” She said the process is treated more like an administrative decision than a legal proceeding. According to the commission report, parole officers who recommend revoking a youth’s parole often do not attend the final hearings. Instead, the review board makes a ruling based on a written statement from officers, which does not allow the youth any chance to question the accusers before the board. The commission found that there was inadequate oversight for board decisions and no system for juveniles to appeal if their paroles are  revoked.

The suit claims that the process is unconstitutional and calls for an overhaul that would allow juveniles due process and legal representation. Van Brunt said that the state’s lack of action after the commission’s scathing report is part of the reason her organization proceeding with a lawsuit. The report claimed that the juvenile justice system was “failing” youth because for seven of the last eight years, more than half of incarcerated juveniles were locked up over parole violations, such as truancy or curfew offenses. “There didn’t seem to be any reaction to that report, which was very empirically based and well founded,” she said. “I think it’s just that there hasn’t been the motivation on the state’s part to implement large scale changes, which is clearly what needs to happen.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice did not take issue with the findings of the commission's report when they were published, and officials said they planned to address some of the problems highlighted in the study. Gov. Pat Quinn’s office today declined to comment on the lawsuit because the state has yet to be served the suit.

Van Brunt said the suit seeks a freeze on any juvenile justice parole revocation hearings under the current system. The group hopes to be able to work out a plan with the state to revamp the system. One of the major overhauls being sought is allowing juveniles accused of parole violations a right to a lawyer from the beginning of the process. Van Brunt said that any agreement would also have to enable youth to gather evidence and face their accusers. “[The suit is] not seeking damage, but it is seeking a change in the way things are done.” But she said if a deal that adequately protects juvenile’s rights cannot be reached with the  state, “we’re going to go through with the litigation as planned.”


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