Local Control of Parole in DC

Local Control of Parole in DC

July 12, 2021

My colleague Pam Bailey wrote the op-ed piece below. It is an excellent explanation of why DC needs to seize the opportunity to take control of parole. The op-ed appeared in the DC Line. Chuck

Pam Bailey: DC officials should act now to restore local control over parole

James Dunn spent 29 years in prison without a disciplinary infraction. He completed every program in which he could enroll, taught classes for fellow prisoners, and mentored those younger than him. Yet Dunn was refused parole three times. He would likely still be in prison if it weren’t for the second chance offered by DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016. Today, he is an outreach worker for Cure the Streets, a District program designed to reduce gun violence.

Frankie Hargrove was denied parole five times despite a similar lack of disciplinary actions (just three in 34 years). He was finally released only because the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had no basis for holding him any longer. Today, he is a budding musician.

For these two men, the early release promised by parole in return for good conduct was a mirage — as it has been and still is for hundreds of DC residents whose fate is left to the opaque intransigence of the U.S. Parole Commission. That is why it is so critical for the mayor and the DC Council to take the necessary steps to transfer control over this life-determining decision from federal to local authorities. 

A little background: Although DC abolished parole in 2000, anyone who received an indeterminate sentence prior to that year must still petition for release. And because DC transferred all control over its criminal justice system to the federal government in 1997, that decision is made by the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) — a body with no accountability to the District government and one that refuses to make public any information on its rulings. Based on the little data available, the District Jails & Justice Task Force estimates that about 660 mostly Black men are eligible for parole — all of whom have been incarcerated for more than 21 years. It’s believed that approximately 345 of those individuals remain behind bars after having been denied at least once. And of those, 129 have been eligible for parole more than nine years.

Too often, the Justice Policy Institute noted in a 2019 report, parole is denied “based on the severity of an individual’s original offense, rather than on evidence of a person’s progress toward rehabilitation.” In a separate report, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs concluded, “The USPC has become a driver of mass incarceration in D.C. The decisions of the USPC have been far harsher than those of the former D.C. Board of Parole, with hundreds of D.C. prisoners denied parole under punitive parole decision-making practices and thousands of D.C. returning citizens returned to incarceration for violation of the USPC’s rules.”

Numerous organizations and individuals have spent hundreds of hours researching different models for local operation of parole. And although differences exist about which model is best, everyone agrees that remaining with the USPC is the worst of all possible options for DC residents. However, before DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton will advance a bill authorizing the transition to local control, Mayor Muriel Bowser must pave the way by allocating sufficient funds and the DC Council must pass enabling legislation. To date, neither has been done.

A critical decision that must be made is what model a local parole authority should follow. Some reform advocates are pushing for responsibility over parole to be transferred to the court system. However, until DC achieves statehood, this would have to be a court run by presidentially appointed judges — and that’s not the direction DC should go. In addition, when nearly 100 incarcerated DC residents were polled on what model they believe would be most fair, they responded with a petition calling for a locally appointed board that includes at least one returned citizen and that is directed to operate with a presumption of release, requiring clear evidence of a risk of public harm today before ruling against release.

This is not the proverbial can that should be kicked down the road. There are lives at stake. One of them is Robert Barton, whose petition for parole was denied this year by the USPC hearing examiner, despite the fact that his score on the commission’s own assessment tool indicated he should be released. Now in his 26th year in prison, Barton wrote in a letter earlier this year, “My mother recently told me, ‘Rob, you got to make it home before I close my eyes.’ And as I sit here on my 26th birthday in prison, I realize my mother is not getting any younger. I’m not getting any younger. Each day counts. I’m not the same Rob of 10 years ago, five years ago or even three years ago. I don’t think the same. I don’t subscribe to the same ideals. I’ve grown. I’ve matured. I’m ready to be free.”

DC’s fiscal year 2022 budget must be finalized by Aug. 10, so there is not much time, but it still can happen. At the very least, the DC Council must work with the mayor to implement enabling legislation so the USPC can be shut down and we can prevent anyone else from following the path of James Dunn, Frankie Hargrove and Robert Barton. 

Pam Bailey is co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, a project that represents and advocates for second chances for incarcerated DC residents.