In 1997, D.C. was in financial peril and the U.S. Congress passed the D.C. Revitalization Act to bail it out. Amongst other things, the act transferred control of the District’s criminal law enforcement from local agencies to the federal government. All D.C. residents were transferred to the federal Bureau of Prisons, whose facilities are scattered far and wide across the country. The Revitalization Act also abolished the D.C. Board of Parole and transferred all of its responsibilities to the U.S. Parole Commission.
This shift in power mandated that the D.C. government could no longer alter its own laws governing parole without the approval of the U.S. attorney general. In addition, the U.S. Parole Commission gained control over two basic functions that were formerly handled by the D.C. board. The first is that of determining who will be granted release on parole and when. The second is to supervise those who are released, which includes the power to re-incarcerate individuals for any violations. (Today, more than 80% of the U.S. Parole Commission’s total caseload is made up of D.C. residents, and the district government has no influence on the decisions.)
At around the same time, in 2000, parole was abolished altogether for any D.C. resident convicted after that year–following the lead of the federal government. Only those convicted earlier may seek parole today. To partially redress this inequity, as well as relieve overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, the D.C. Council passed a law in April 2020 allowing persons sentenced between June 22, 1994 (when the possibility of sentence reductions in return for good conduct was repealed), and Aug. 4, 2000 (when the district abolished parole), to retroactively benefit from good-conduct credit, up to 54 days per year—thus making them eligible for early parole. However, as documented below, the USPC has a dismal track record.
The members on the U.S. Parole Commission are appointed by the president and the appointees are not required to have any connection to or residency in D.C. They also have no accountability to any D.C. agency or court. Yet, when these individuals are released, they will most likely return to community in which they lived before incarceration. Residents of the District of Columbia have the strongest interest in supporting returning citizens.
In addition, cutting D.C. out of the parole “bakes in” injustice. The U.S. Parole Commission typically bases its parole decisions on the nature of the original offense rather than on an assessment of rehabilitation and potential risk of release.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs reported in 2018 that of the 4,700 D.C. prisoners held in federal prisons, about 1,300 who were sentenced before 2000 were eligible for parole but have been denied release by the USPC. Another 1,700 or more DC prisoners were being held at that time on parole/supervised release violations. These men and women had been incarcerated by the USPC for technical violations of parole rules, not for breaking the law. Additionally, about one-third of the D.C. jail population was being held in 2018 on parole/supervised-release violations.
Since then, the USPC has refused to hold itself accountable by releasing statistics on its performance. However, the Justice Policy Institute wrote in a 2019 report that it had received “frequent complaints that the commission systematically denies parole based on the severity of an individual’s original offense, rather than on evidence of a person’s progress toward rehabilitation…Another common complaint is that the USPC seldom identifies a path forward for those persons who are denied parole. Little guidance is given about what steps can be taken to mitigate the factors that led to the denial.”
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs concludes this: “The USPC has become a driver of mass incarceration. The decisions of the USPC have been far harsher than those of the former D.C. Board of Parole, with hundreds of district prisoners denied parole under punitive parole decision-making practices.”
District officials are taking action to bring control over parole back to the district: D.C. Representative Eleanore Holmes Norton re-introduced legislation Jan. 28 to transfer the USPC functions to the District of Columbia. If enacted, HR 8890 (the District of Columbia Parole and Supervised Release Act) the USPC’s mandate over District residents would end would end Oct. 31, 2022, and full authority for parole and supervised released would be transferred back to D.C.
Meanwhile, however, dialogue must be held on who should decide who receives it. Some experts advocate in favor of empowering judges to decide instead of a board, arguing that the former would more thoughtfully consider an individual’s rehabilitation rather than re-try based on the original offense. However, others argue that judges would be too independent, thus not reflecting progressive desires to, for instance, place the emphasis on why individuals should not be released, rather than on why they should. In addition, the D.C. government could at least attempt to mandate that when parole is denied, the BOP place the individuals in facilities where they have access to the type of programming required to win release the next time around.