DC Statehood-Black Lives Matter

June 19, 2020

June 19 or Juneteenth is like April 16 for DC residents. Congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act to end slavery in the District of Columbia and President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on April 16, 1862. Three years later, after the Civil War ended and after the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially abolishing slavery nationwide, African Americans in the District began to celebrate April 16 as a holiday. 

Political Leaders In the District often complain that District residents are still not totally free because DC is not a state. Congress has the power to overrule legislation passed by the DC Council and the District has no real representation in the Congress. Our Congressional representative is not a voting member. Often District political leaders hint that overt racism influences the debate on whether DC should become a state.

Yet District leaders are not immune from criticism and charges of hypocrisy.  For instance, Congress had indicated last year that it would be willing to transfer authority of the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) back to the District. 

The U.S. Parole Commission has the power to discipline DC residents who have been given early release from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Every DC resident who is convicted of a felony serves his or her sentence in a federal prison. There are approximately 4500 DC residents incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country.

 

When a DC residents receive early release (often 15% of the sentence is shortened), they come under the authority of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA).  If a returning citizen breaks a rule of CSOSA that is not a crime, he or she is disciplined by the U.S. Parole Commission. The U.S. Parole Commission is very punitive and often sends people back to prison for a significant amount of time even for an insignificant mistake, such as missing an appointment with his or her supervisor.  

My friend and colleague, Phil Fornaci, made these additional points:
  1. people released on parole (all of whom at this point have served at least 20 years by the time they are released) are subject to close supervision, and most are eventually returned to prison for non-criminal violations (technical violations) at some point during their supervision;
  2. people on supervised release (anyone with a DC felony conviction after August 2000) must serve three to five years on supervised release, which exposes them to the same potential revocation violations as people on parole.
  3. Notably, since at least 2014, the District has sent more people to prison (federal prison in this case) for violations of supervision rules than for the commission of new felony offenses. This means we are sending more people to prison who have not violated the law than we are imprisoning people found to have committed actual new felonies. What this means is that more than half of DC prisoners in the BOP are there due to the decisions of the U.S. Parole Commission, not of a judge or jury. And very obviously not coincidentally, 95% or more of these individuals are African-American. If we did not have the USPC, and instead had a local parole authority that did not incarcerate people for technical offenses and who also took a less punitive approach to parole grants (about 750 DC prisoners with parole-able sentences), DC's population of incarcerated black bodies would decrease dramatically. There are now around 4,200 DC prisoners in the BOP. If we wanted to address mass incarceration in DC, this is the most direct way to have an impact. The Mayor clearly does not want such an outcome.
  4. Finally, as you know, the USPC Commissioners are not from DC, nor are they accountable to any DC entity (courts, legislature, executive agencies). Their caseload is made up of mostly (85%) DC prisoners and returning citizens under supervision. The lack of connection to DC priorities for returning citizens and treatment of our prisoners is apparent.

DC criminal justice advocates strongly pushed the Mayor and the Council to take back control of the U.S. Parole Commission. This would be a small step toward statehood. More importantly, the District could set up its own Parole Commission that could be less punitive and provide more services to returning citizens, the majority of whom are African-Americans. 

Recently, the Mayor and the Council passed up the offer from Congress to take back control of the Parole Commission. The Mayor told Congress to hold onto it for another five years. If Black lives truly mattered to our political leaders including the Mayor, they would have taken up Congress’ offer without any hesitation. If Statehood truly mattered to our political leaders, they would have taken back control of the Parole Commission in a minute. 

Instead, all we get from our political leaders are words without any action.  


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