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Three New Jersey state prison inmates filed suit Tuesday in federal court in Camden, charging that the state Parole Board is not complying with statutory requirements for parole hearings. The plaintiffs, who seek class-action status, say they are suing on behalf of all inmates who, like themselves, passed their parole eligibility dates without receiving a hearing, as mandated by N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.55(c), and did not receive a pre-parole report, required under section 30:4-123.54(a) to be filed at least 120 days before, and given to the inmate at least 105 days before, the eligibility date. The complaint alleges that thousands of inmates have been affected by the delay, but the size of the class is not known at present. The suit, Hawker v. Consovoy, has been assigned to Judge Joel Pisano and Magistrate Judge Robert Kugler, but plaintiffs’ lawyer Joseph Osefchen, of Haddonfield, says he may seek to transfer it to Judge Joseph Rodriguez, who he says is handling a similar matter. The suit names the eight board members who were sitting at the time the parole eligibility dates allegedly passed for the named plaintiffs, all inmates at Riverfront State Prison in Camden — Ian Hawker (last March), Nelson Miles (last August) and Jermaine Lawrence (last January). The complaint asserts that the delays violate the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. section 1983. The suit also cites Parole Board v. Byrne, 93 N.J. 192 (1983), which held that the New Jersey Parole Act, section 30:4-123.45 et seq., creates a “liberty interest” with accompanying due process protections. The suit seeks a declaration that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights have been violated, as well as injunctive relief requiring that the defendants comply with the statutory requirements and “provide an alternative mechanism that will end the continual violations as soon as possible.” In addition, the complaint demands attorneys’ fees and classwide nominal damages because even if it turns out that plaintiffs were not entitled to parole, their statutory rights were violated. The action specifically says it does not seek any inmate’s release. Osefchen says he did not want the suit to be confused with a habeas corpus action or raise issues about individual class members’ entitlement to release. Barry Albin, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers-New Jersey, says the Parole Board told him two weeks ago that the backlog of hearings had dropped to 300. Albin says the figure had reached 2,400 last year. Parole Board Executive Director Robert Egles says that he cannot give precise figures but that as of earlier this year, the number was reduced to the point where it could no longer be termed a backlog. Even if the 300 figure is correct, he says, it includes offenders who are sentenced when they are already “past eligible because of time served” and those in custody pending revocation of parole. He says the board now is in compliance with applicable statutes. According to Egles, the reduction was accomplished by expanding the size of the Parole Board, extending the members’ work hours, reassigning administrative or supervisory staff as hearing officers and lifting the prohibition against assigning adult cases to panels that usually hear juvenile matters. As many as five, two-member panels have conducted hearings at one time, and hearings have been held on evenings, weekends and holidays, he says. In addition, three spots have been added to the board, and two are filled, says Egles. The new members — Oscar Doyle and Joseph Chance — are not named as defendants. Parole Board Chairman Andrew Consovoy in February blamed the backlog on the Department of Corrections’ failure to provide necessary records. But Egles denies any current fault on the part of the department, saying that the problem referred to by Consovoy had been resolved by February. Consovoy did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Osefchen says the board has been promising for too long that it is close to fixing the problem. Attached to the complaint is a March 1999 letter from Michael Carlin, the Parole Board’s deputy executive director, to the American Friends Service Committee, assuring that “Consovoy has undertaken an initiative designed to eliminate all past eligible parole cases in every institution by the end of June.” In a Feb. 7, 2000, Law Journal article attached to the complaint, Consovoy was quoted as admitting the existence of a 200-case backlog but guaranteed that “in a month or two we will be even.” Despite these assurances, the complaint alleges, counsel for the Parole Board admitted on April 27 that the backlog was 300. In light of the accelerated hearing pace, Albin and Alan Zegas, past ACDL- NJ president, question whether the quality of the hearings is being sacrificed. Albin says he has heard that panels are holding as many as 25 hearings a day. Egles says that panels typically schedule 20 hearings a day. The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union brought a similar action more than a decade ago, says former executive director Edward Martone. Martone now heads the New Jersey Association on Corrections in Trenton, which provides half-way houses, drug treatment centers and other services to prisoners, and lobbies on their behalf. Stephen Latimer of Hackensack’s Loughlin & Latimer, who, along with Eric Neisser, handled the case, Campbell v. Dietz, for the ACLU, says it sounds like the “same situation as back in 1988.” He adds that the ACLU suit was filed in Superior Court but sent to the Appellate Division as a denial of administrative relief. Class certification was denied and the individual plaintiffs did not prevail, he adds.

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