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CHICAGO — A settlement in a federal lawsuit challenging Illinois' parole revocation process will mean legal assistance for many parolees at risk to return to prison if they are unable to defend themselves against alleged parole violations.

Illinois' parole system supervises about 28,000 men and woman. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board holds about 10,000 hearings a year to review alleged breaches of parole, now officially referred to as mandatory supervised release.

The settlement approved Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve ends a 2013 lawsuit by parolees against the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Prisoner Review Board.

Alan Mills, executive director of Chicago-based Uptown People's Law Center, one of the lawyers for parolees, said the agreement will make lawyers available for parolees who are unable to handle the legal work that's required at a hearing and can't afford counsel.  

The assistance of legal counsel, combined with a new set of deadlines for proceedings, could reduce the number of people returning to prison, said Mills.

Currently, parolees detained on alleged parole violations wait four to five months in prison before a hearing.

"That four to five months can destroy people's lives," said Mills.

Under the new rules, a preliminary hearing would be scheduled within 10 days, and if credible evidence is not found for a violation, the person would be released.

IDOC Director John Baldwin said Wednesday that the agreement "restores integrity to the parole revocation process and ensures potential violators have fair representation and a voice in the process."

Parole Review Board Chairman Craig Findley said, "We are committed to making sure all potential parole and MSR violators get a fair hearing before decisions about revocation are made."

Implementation of the agreement "should end the revolving door between prison and our communities and reduce the number of people held behind bars throughout the state," said Sheila Bedi, an attorney with the Chicago-based Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, whose firm also represented parolees in the civil action.

An independent monitor has been hired to oversee compliance with the agreement. 

The settlement that could reduce the number of ex-offenders who cycle back into prison comes on the heels of a final report from a state panel on criminal justice and sentencing reform. Charged by Gov. Bruce Rauner with producing recommendations that could reduce the state's prison population by 25 percent by 2025, the State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform proposed restoring the state's Halfway Back program for parolees.

Shuttered in 2010 as a cost cutting measure, Halfway Back was a residential program for men that provided 24/7 supervision to help parolees adjust to life after prison. Pre-employment training, counseling and GED courses were part of the program.

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Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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