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CHICAGO — A settlement in a federal lawsuit will mean major changes in the state's parole revocation process, including the appointment of lawyers for many of more than 8,000 former inmates sent back to prison each year for violating their parole.

The preliminary agreement reached Thursday in the 2013 lawsuit filed in the in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois will give inmates a chance to explain their side of the violation at a preliminary hearing. Eligible parolees will have an attorney with them at hearings and receive written findings at each stage of the process.

Alan Mills, executive director of Chicago's Uptown People's Law Center and one of the lawyers for the inmates, said "most people think that if you are facing prison in this country, you are entitled to a lawyer. That has not been true Illinois, where thousands of people every year are returned from parole to prison without a lawyer, or a proper hearing."

Parolees' constitutional rights have been violated by the system, added Alexa Van Brunt, an assistant law professor at the Northwestern School of Law and an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, also in Chicago.

"The vast majority lost their freedom in phony hearings that lasted only minutes and stripped them of their constitutional right to due process," said Van Brunt.

IDOC spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said the agency will work with the Prisoner Review Board "to ensure that the parole revocation process is conducted in a fair and impartial manner, and that alleged parole violators have access to an attorney throughout the hearing process."

The number of parole violators held in IDOC has dropped from more than 8,000 in 2014 to 5,626 currently, according to IDOC. The average length of stay for violators is four to six months, said Wilson. 

The agreement is one of several developments in the past year toward improving conditions for inmates and parolees, said Mills.

An agreement reached in federal court in January laid out a plan to overhaul mental health treatment in all Illinois prisons, including the opening of four residential treatment centers for seriously mentally ill inmates. An estimated 11,000 of the state's 46,000 inmates experience some form of mental illness, according to data disclosed in the lawsuit.

The state's plan to close the notoriously tough Stateville F House in Joliet, the last circular prison in the country, combined with recommended changes in segregation rules that will give prisoners held in solitary confinement more time outside their cells and better access to mental health care also are positive trends, Mills observed.

"There's more that needs to be done, but these things represent a good start," he said.

Mills, who represents inmates in a number of lawsuits against the state related to prison conditions, noted the state's budget constraints have limited the changes IDOC director John Baldwin is willing to make to address prison issues.

The union that represents prison workers has voiced concerns on some of the proposed changes. A recent incident at Pontiac Correctional Center between inmates and staff left several officers injured. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees attributed the violence to changes in the release of some inmates from solitary confinement before their behavior had improved.

A Jan. 25 fairness hearing is scheduled in Chicago to hear objections to the settlement involving parolee rights.  

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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