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Parole violators have right to state-provided attorneys, judge rules

March 27, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — A key part of a victims' rights measure voters approved in November was blocked Thursday by a federal judge, who ruled that the state cannot restrict parole violators' right to state-provided legal counsel when considering whether to send them back to prison.

Senior Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the U.S. District Court in Sacramento ruled against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state in issuing an injunction against part of Proposition 9, the measure known as the Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy's Law.

The initiative dictates that the state provide legal counsel to parole violators only under certain circumstances, including when the case is unusually complex or when the parolee is indigent or has issues of mental competency.

Proponents of Proposition 9 said that under the measure, the state would provide legal counsel in only about 15% of parole revocation hearings, saving $40 million annually.

The judge said the state must abide by a court- approved consent decree from 2004 that requires the state to provide legal counsel in all parole revocation hearings.

"This is a costly and unnecessary standard for California to use and should be overturned," said Nina Salarno-Ashford, executive board member of Crime Victims United of California.

"Especially now, we cannot afford to be spending tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary privileges for convicted felons. Proposition 9 strikes the perfect balance by protecting the constitutional rights of parolees while saving the state tens of millions of dollars a year."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all parolees by private attorney Ernest J. Galvan of San Francisco.

"The significance of the court decision is it's a major win for public safety in California," Galvan said. "Public safety relies on using prison beds for dangerous people and not wasting prison beds on low-risk people."

By providing an attorney to all 80,000 parolees who annually face revocation hearings, the state makes the decision on whether to send someone back to prison more "accurate and reliable," Galvan said.

The state entered into a court-approved consent decree in 2004 to settle allegations that parolees were not getting fair and timely access to the parole revocation process.

As part of the settlement, the state agreed to provide attorneys to all parolees facing revocation.

Karlton found "there are several areas in which Proposition 9" and the consent decree "are in plain conflict."

Proposition 9 also conflicts with provisions of the consent decree that require accommodation for parolees' disabilities and that protect the ability of the parolee to present evidence at the probable cause hearing and expedite probable cause hearings in certain circumstances.

Although attorneys for the state have signaled their intent to appeal the ruling, officials said Thursday that they will continue to enforce provisions of Marsy's Law not struck down by the court, including notification of victims when there are parole hearings.

"We are still reviewing the ruling and the impacts on components of Marsy's Law," said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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patrick.mcgreevy @latimes.com

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