Time is Running Out for Local Control of Parole in DC
July 7, 2021
Letter to Mayor Bowser and the Members of the D.C. Council
On July 5, 2020, Mayor Bowser sent a request to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton: “With forward momentum and progress on our journey to DC Statehood, I write to ask for your support for the District regaining local control of parole functions through federal legislation.” Now a full year later, neither the Mayor nor the D.C. Council have taken any significant actions toward achieving this crucial goal.
As a member of the D.C. community (resident of Ward 4) who advocates for the rights of D.C. residents returning from incarceration, and as a committed supporter of DC Statehood, I am sorely disappointed by our local government’s failure of leadership and betrayal of our legitimate aspirations for social justice and for D.C. Statehood.
Congresswoman Norton complied with the Mayor’s July 2020 request by introducing legislation in the 116th Congress more than seven months ago, and then again by introducing as H.R. 658 in the 117th Congress to authorize the District government to create a paroling agency to take on the duties currently handled by the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC). As the Mayor appropriately noted in her July 5, 2020 letter with regard to the power wielded by the USPC, “It is important that decisions of this magnitude be made by DC residents and that they be accountable to our community and our elected officials.”
Some context is important. In 2018, the U.S. Congress had reauthorized the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) with a "sunset" provision to abolish this federal agency’s authority in November 2020. Throughout 2018 and 2019 a working group of advocates and various justice reform organizations urged the District government to take advantage of this opportunity to assume local control of parole functions.
In October 2019, the District Task Force on Jails and Justice comprised of members of government agencies, research organizations, scholars, community representatives and members of faith-based communities recommended that the District government “plan now to localize parole and supervised release decision-making.” A District-funded study by the Justice Policy Institute recommended several programmatic options in a report concluded in September 2019. Despite these calls for action, the District took made no decisions and took no action.
In her July 5, 2020 letter, the Mayor requested a two-year extension of the November 2020 deadline, which she claimed “would be sufficient for us to plan, prepare and fund an orderly transition of the parole function to local control.” For the past year, experienced justice reform and community advocates undertook as volunteers the heavy burden of articulating principles to guide a new parole authority, publishing documents delineating structure, staffing and budget for a new parole authority, and crafting recommendations and legislative language to protect due process and assure the integrity of parole release and supervision revocation decisions. The documents can be found here.
In contrast, over the same year’s time D.C. elected officials have failed to engage in any effective planning or preparation for the transition to local control of parole. The Council has not introduced, and the Mayor’s office has not proposed, appropriate legislation. The Mayor has included a token allocation of $100,000 in her draft FY2022 budget, inadequate to create and begin operating a new paroling agency with a capacity to assume responsibilities in November 2022.
Over the last few weeks, the entire D.C. political leadership has forcefully demanded Congressional action on DC Statehood, while failing to take any concrete steps to restore a fundamental state function to local control.
For thousands of D.C. prisoners, returning citizens and their families and supporters, D.C.’s elected leaders’ inaction with regard to local control of parole betrays what we had considered to be our shared goals of D.C. autonomy and racial justice. Currently, nearly the entire USPC caseload are Black District residents. The USPC's unaccountable decision-making practices cruelly extends the incarceration of hundreds of D.C. prisoners, while sending hundreds more D.C. returning citizens back to federal prison every year for minor, non-criminal violations of supervision rules. Federal control of parole has damaged countless lives and decimated many D.C. communities.
We are now fast approaching a make-or-break deadline. Yet instead of taking immediate and decisive action, D.C. political leaders have allowed themselves to be distracted by a vague “alternative” to local control of parole: transitioning parole functions from the USPC to another federal agency, D.C. Superior Court.
As the Council on Court Excellence stated in its Council Hearing testimony, the federally controlled D.C. Superior Court is already severely underfunded and understaffed, and unable to take on parole functions, regardless of the putative merits of this idea. The Court itself has made no formal request to increase funding in the coming year to take on the USPC functions, nor has Superior Court leadership publicly endorsed the idea. In short, there is no feasible Superior Court “option,” nor would a transfer from the USPC to D.C. Superior Court in any way restore “local control.”
Proposing such an unrealistic and untenable “alternative” at this late date is an abdication of responsibility which will deny full autonomy for D.C. Further, it represents a breaking of previous promises from our political leadership to D.C. residents who are deeply committed to serious reform of the criminal system. We have included with this letter a petition supported by more than 100 D.C. prisoners supporting creation of a D.C. paroling agency, rejecting a transition from the USPC to Superior Court judges.
We are nearly out of time to create a local parole system that is both effective and accountable to the D.C. community, while committed to the principles of racial equity and restorative justice.
If the District fails to realistically budget for a new D.C. paroling agency in the coming weeks, and fails to pass legislation enabling this transition, we are at risk that the U.S. Congress will reauthorize the USPC. Such inaction will allow for the continuation of the tyrannical control of the USPC over the lives of D.C. residents and drive up mass incarceration, while dashing any hopes for D.C. Statehood for many years to come. We urge the Executive and the Council to ACT NOW. We urge you to begin by considering the recommendations and serious proposals before you now on the merits.
For further information and guidance, please contact me ([email protected]), the Co-Chairs of the D.C. Reentry Task Force, Louis Sawyer Jr. ([email protected]) and Isa Mirza ([email protected]) or Malcolm Young ([email protected]) with the Re-Think Justice Coalition.
Rabbi Chuck Feinberg