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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 12:07 am

Keeping parolees out

Reforms make return to prison less likely

 

Parolees accused of violating parole conditions may have a better shot at avoiding prison under a recent settlement of a class action lawsuit against state prison authorities.

The settlement in the lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections and the state Prisoner Review Board comes as the state’s prison population has plummeted from nearly 49,000 offenders in 2014 to slightly more than 44,000. Still, the system, which is designed for 32,000 inmates, remains overcrowded.

The settlement announced last week calls for prompt revocation hearings and decisions as well as state-paid lawyers for some parolees facing revocation proceedings before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which decides whether parolees accused of violating parole conditions should be returned to prison. In addition, the settlement requires that parolees receive written notice of alleged violations as well as written findings when decisions are reached.

Parolees facing revocation will be screened by the Prisoner Review Board to determine whether they have a defense and, if so, whether they can competently present it on their own. The mentally ill, the illiterate and parolees with complicated defenses are among those likely to get state-paid lawyers, advocates for inmates say.

Attorneys for inmates who sued in 2013 say that parole hearings have typically been shams that lasted minutes without due process for the accused, who often have been locked up for months before getting a chance to respond to charges. The settlement mirrors the 2014 settlement of a class-action lawsuit that requires prompt hearings and state-paid lawyers for juvenile offenders facing parole revocation. In the case of juveniles, who began getting state-paid lawyers in 2015, the percentage of parole revocations has dropped by half, says Alan Mills, director of the Uptown Peoples Law Center in Chicago that litigated both cases on behalf of offenders.

“If we didn’t think it would make a difference, we wouldn’t have done the case,” Mills said. “Time will tell.”

As of last week, more than 5,600 inmates were being held by the Illinois Department of Corrections for parole revocations, according to Nicole Wilson, IDOC spokeswoman.

Litigation aimed at reforming Illnois’ parole revocation process dates back more than 20 years. The settlement last week extends statewide some previous parole revocation reforms that had been limited to Cook County, Mills said, but even in Cook County, settlements designed to protect the rights of parolees had eroded over time. Advocates for inmates say that procedures that prompted the lawsuit settled last week were much like those described in a 1993 article published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, which reported that parolees didn’t have lawyers, hearings lasted minutes and the results were all but pre-determined.

“The revocation hearings have atrophied into little more than a ritualized exchange between the (Prisoner Review) Board and the parolee,” the Journal reported 23 years ago.

Until recently, not much had changed, Mills said. But, even before last week’s settlement, Mills said that the prison system under Gov. Bruce Rauner has gotten pickier about which parolees should be sent back to prison. Three years ago, a parolee who was doing construction work at the Uptown Peoples Law Center was revoked and incarcerated for three months because he’d gotten a flat tire en route home and so wasn’t where he was supposed to be when a parole officer visited his home, Mills recalled. At the time, the state prison population was approaching 49,000 inmates. Now, the state is more apt to employ graduated sanctions so that parolees who screw up don’t automatically go back to prison, Mills said.

“It’s changing – there’s no question about it,” Mills said. “In Illinois, the governor has set a goal of reducing inmate population by 25 percent. That’s something no governor has done since I started doing this work in 1979.”

Jennifer Volen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago prison watchdog group, called the reduction in population a “mixed bag.” While the state deserves praise for reducing prison population, she noted that prison facilities are still holding 12,000 more inmates than they were designed to house.

“On the one hand, I think that in terms of changing Illinois for the better, they absolutely are,” Volen-Katz said. “The population of the Illinois Department of Corrections is down. Is it down anywhere near where it could be? No.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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