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updated: 10/24/2012 8:32 PM

Juvenile parole hearings assailed as 'kangaroo courts'

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Associated Press

Hearings used in Illinois to revoke a juvenile's parole amount to "kangaroo courts" that deny fundamental due-process rights and lead to the illegal detention of hundreds of children each year, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

The 15-page class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, argues that putting so many young people behind bars not only costs taxpayers millions but also suggests it may lock some kids into lives of crime once they become adults.

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The lawsuit, filed by Northwestern University Law School's Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, names Illinois Prisoner Review Board Chairman Adam Monreal and Gov. Pat Quinn, and asks a judge to order the board to reform its procedures to comply with state and federal law.

To decide whether to revoke a juvenile's parole, many states rely on judges and courts that are more likely to adhere to established due-process rules, while Illinois' system is prone to abuse, said Sheila Bedi, one of the attorneys who helped draw up the lawsuit.

"It is assembly line justice," she said. "Young people get trampled in the system. And it's much more difficult for them to make positive life choices when they're exposed to imprisonment."

Review board attorney Ken Tupy declined to comment Wednesday, saying the agency doesn't speak about pending legal matters.

In response to multiple messages seeking comment on the lawsuit and to more general allegations about the board, Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft sent an email Wednesday evening, saying, "We have not been served and will review upon receipt."

There are around 1,500 children in their teens and sometime younger on parole in Illinois; and parole was revoked 735 times out 1,132 hearings last year, the lawsuit said, citing agency data. That data doesn't include juvenile parolees detained in the weeks before a final ruling releasing them.

"These unlawful tribunals -- akin to kangaroo courts -- result in the arbitrary detention and imprisonment of over 1,000 young people throughout the state of Illinois each year," the lawsuit says.

It's not the first time the state's hearings have been sharply criticized. In a report last year, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission -- a federally mandated body that advises state authorities -- issued a scathing assessment of the review-board system.

It noted that in only 1 percent of the revocation hearings it observed did juveniles have a lawyer present. And juveniles were so ill-informed about their right to demand a preliminary hearing, the report said, that 85 percent of the time, they waived that right.

"Commissioners rarely observed a youth being afforded their due process rights," the report said.

Wednesday's lawsuit echoed those findings, adding that final revocation rulings are frequently based on brief, sketchy reports from parole officers.

"The full parole revocation hearings ... are a sham," the lawsuit says.

Another MacArthur Justice Center attorney, Alexa Van Brunt, said it's not clear why officials haven't acted to fix shortcomings noted in the commission report. She speculated that budget concerns and interagency disagreements may be contributing factors.

"As far as we can tell, there hasn't been any action" she said. "If (funding) is what's slowing down the change, that's not sufficient reason to subject children to (what are essentially) secret tribunals."

Depending on where a juvenile is held, the price of locking a juvenile back up can cost taxpayers between $67,000 and $140,000 per child, the lawsuit alleges.

There is a similar review-board system in place for adults and there are issues with their rights being violated, too, Bedi said.

"But these children are more vulnerable," she said. "They're less able to navigate a really complicated process."

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