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Suit alleges 'kangaroo court' juvenile parole system

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 9:41 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — A proposed class-action lawsuit filed this week in federal court alleges that hundreds of Illinois youth are imprisoned each year on often technical parole violations and held unconstitutionally through a “kangaroo court” system that restricts access to an attorney.

The suit, filed Tuesday by the Northwestern University School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of a teen identified by initials M.H., names Gov. Pat Quinn and Adam Monreal, the chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

It seeks class-action status for “all children and teenagers who have been imprisoned or otherwise deprived of their liberty as a result of the unconstitutional” system of juvenile parole.

The suit alleged that juvenile offenders accused of violating parole are often persuaded to waive their right to a crucial preliminary hearing by being told it will help them get home sooner.

Even if that hearing occurs, the juvenile typically has no chance to review the alleged violations and does not have access to legal counsel, both due-process violations, according to the suit.

“This flawed system creates a revolving door that ensures most young people who leave prison will return at some point,” MacArthur’s attorney, Alexa Van Brunt, said in a statement. “Not necessarily because they commit a new crime, but because the parole process imprisons youth without a hearing based on a mere allegation that the youth committed a minor violation of his parole.”  

M.H., described as a 17-year-old Chicago boy on parole for a drug conviction, was locked up on Sept. 13 on accusations he failed to keep in touch with his parole officer, according to the suit. The teen, who is “moderately cognitively impaired” and has been in and out of drug and mental health treatment, was asked to sign a piece of paper with the promise it would get him home sooner.

He’s since been held for six weeks without a hearing and has had no access to an attorney, the suit alleged.

“I would like a lawyer to help me tell my side of the story,” M.H. wrote in an affidavit attached to the lawsuit. “I don’t understand a lot about the parole process. I don’t understand the rules. I can’t speak up for myself in a room full of adults.”

The teen wrote that without access to a car the conditions of his parole were difficult to meet. He also said he needed more time to earn his high school diploma and find a job.

According to statistics provided by MacArthur, the prisoner review board in 2011 revoked parole in 65 percent of its 1,132 juvenile cases. More than half of those revocations stemmed from technical parole violations, not new arrests or criminal charges.

Keeping a youth locked up on a parole violation costs taxpayers between $67,000 and $140,000 a year, according to MacArthur.

Representatives with Quinn’s office and the Prisoner Review Board were not immediately available for comment.  

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