Young Parolees Given Basic Rights

June 5, 2008

By Karen de Sa  |  Mercury News  —  

A significant legal settlement announced Wednesday grants thousands of juvenile parolees fundamental due process rights for the first time in California history.

Under the agreement reached in a Sacramento federal court between youth advocates and state officials, offenders who violate parole will soon be afforded the basic constitutional rights granted to adult parolees. In hearings to decide whether they should be locked up again, juvenile parolees will be granted legal counsel, the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses, and protection from lengthy pre-hearing detention and the arbitrary lengthening of sentences.

Legal advocates described the settlement as the most historic impact on California juvenile law in the past 30 years.

Prior to changes formalized this week, "it was basically like being sentenced to the twilight zone," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "If you were a juvenile parolee, you were placed in this legal limbo where you had no rights, no hearing date and no lawyer."

Adachi learned of the differing standards first-hand, after taking on a 2005 case for a juvenile parolee caught with medicinal marijuana. The state denied Adachi's request to represent the youth, based on longstanding rules barring attorneys in all but a small fraction of parole revocation cases.

Under the settlement, those rules are upended, expanding the legal rights of approximately 2,300 parolees by Dec. 15.

Bernie Warner, chief of the state's Division of Juvenile Justice, praised the settlement. Warner said attorney access and new timelines for hearings will help expedite decisions about who is a public safety risk and who needs treatment. "It sets up a fair and just process that's good for everyone," Warner said.
Juvenile offenders ages 12 to 25 face high stakes once released from state custody. They can be sent back to prison for infractions as minor as a traffic violation or missing a 12-step meeting. And California youth offenders spend almost three times longer in custody than the national average.

The class-action suit initially filed in 2006 by two non-profit advocacy groups – the Prison Law Office and the Youth Law Center – and the San Francisco law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan argued that a flawed process for parole violators has fed the problems in the juvenile justice system.

Changes under the settlement seem basic for most courts of law but will be novel in the juvenile parole system. Defendants will have the right to a well-defined route of appeal. There will be strict rules on pre-hearing detention and on the time parole board members can add to sentences, with a maximum of one year. Violators will no longer automatically be shackled during hearings, and the parole board must now consider alternatives to incarceration, such as community treatment programs.

R.C. is among the plaintiffs the ruling will affect. The 23-year-old East Bay resident – who agreed to be interviewed on the condition she not be named – served a three-year sentence for car theft as a youthful offender and was released from prison after a successful stint as an inmate firefighter, receiving commendations for saving a woman's life.

But when she later got into a violent argument with her boyfriend, a parole board threatened to lock her up for nine more months. When she asked for a lawyer, she learned that she wasn't eligible because she didn't have a mental illness. What's more, she was told that because she was pregnant, she wasn't suitable for a treatment program.

"I didn't have any backup, I couldn't defend myself," R.C. told the Mercury News. "But I couldn't just sit there and do nine more months."

R.C., who is now an intern with a San Francisco non-profit, said Wednesday's settlement will help others like her. "As juveniles, we're hit with all this time and there was really nothing we could say," she said. "Now, with attorneys present, we can feel there is justice."