In February of 2007, after spending time in prison for drug possession, Barry A. Hazle Jr. was finally released on parole.
Parole came with a few strings attached, though. Hazle had to attend a 90-day drug treatment program which, in his case, involved the Twelve-Step program most commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. As we’ve discussed on this site before, several of those steps include references to God and submitting to a “higher power.”
Hazle — an atheist — wanted no part of that, so he asked to be reassigned to a secular treatment program. Even as he began attending the Twelve-Step classes, he objected to them. Three days after his parole officer received the appeal, Hazle “was called out of a program class and arrested for violating parole… He was sent back to prison for four months.”
It made absolutely no sense. That same year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals specifically ruled “that a parolee [couldn't] be ordered to attend [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings as a condition of staying out of prison.”
It has taken a long time to resolve this issue, but there’s finally some justice for Hazle today and it comes from the same Court of Appeals:
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.
“Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle’s unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge’s finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote for the panel.
The court also demanded that a district judge in Sacramento reconsider whether state officials could “[require] parolees to attend treatment programs that emphasize God or a ‘higher power.’”
It’ll take another jury to decide how much money Hazle should receive from the state.
It’s hard to overstate how important this victory is. It should’ve been obvious to state officials (and Hazle’s parole officer) that they couldn’t mandate anyone to go to a religious drug treatment program. It should’ve been obvious that they couldn’t punish someone for not wanting to attend that particular kind of program. Yet, they tried to coerce Hazle into going there, anyway.
He fought back, he was right, and he deserves fair compensation after everything the state put him through.