Over two years, 23-year-old Steven Pugh violated almost every condition of his court-ordered probation for carrying a gun in the nation’s capital: He tested positive for PCP, was charged with assault for allegedly dragging his girlfriend across a floor and pleaded guilty to committing a robbery in Maryland. For months, he had disappeared entirely from his probation officer’s radar screen.
Still, Pugh’s probation was not revoked, sparing him from a year in jail. In August 2015, Pugh was still failing to show up for drug tests and other appointments, but his probation officer did not press for him to be locked up. The next month, a father of three in Southeast was shot and killed. Pugh was arrested fleeing the scene and later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
A version of Pugh’s case plays out frequently in the District. About 150 times a year, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency loses track of offenders it classifies as high-risk, the agency acknowledges. Several hundred additional offenders classified as lower-risk also go missing, and scores of them turn up as suspects in new crimes, according to court records.
But the problem does not stop there.
Unlike supervisory agencies in many states, CSOSA does not notify law enforcement or the public in the District about missing offenders, even when it believes an offender “has the potential to create a new victim,” as the agency wrote in court records about Pugh. Doing so, it says, would violate federal privacy laws protecting those it calls its “clients” — the absconders.
The District is the only jurisdiction in the country where Congress has made supervision of local criminals a federal responsibility. A Washington Post investigation has found that federal control has created layers of bureaucracy that make it difficult to quickly put those who violate the terms of their release back behind bars or to effectively monitor the most dangerous offenders released back into the community.
A review of hundreds of court cases and federal documents, as well as interviews with prosecutors, police, defense attorneys and criminal justice experts, shows that the District’s uniquely constructed criminal justice system often breaks down at the vulnerable point when offenders are leaving jail or prison and returning to the streets.
CSOSA (see-so-sa) does not automatically share details about its offenders’ absences with D.C. police, as many similar state or local agencies do with police in their jurisdictions, criminal justice experts say. And when offenders are caught in a serious violation, the agency has to petition the courts and the U.S. Parole Commission to revoke probation or parole, or to have a warrant issued for their arrest. Then, CSOSA must usually rely on a third federal agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, to get the offender back to the D.C. jail or prison.
About once a week, a D.C. offender under federal supervision ends up as either a victim or a suspect in a homicide investigation. Last year, nearly one out of four people charged with a killing in the District was under CSOSA supervision, while one out of five victims also was in its care, according to agency and police data.
Offenders under CSOSA’s supervision were charged with nearly 1,500 crimes of violence in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to documents submitted to Congress. In all of 2016, 836 individuals have been convicted of crimes, and that represents about 5 percent of the total under supervision, the agency said.
“It’s set up to fail people,” said Philip J. Fornaci, past director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, who now works to find jobs for returning inmates as head of the Employment Justice Center. “If it was actually a system that was geared toward rehabilitation, it wouldn’t be set up like this, and if public safety were a real concern, it wouldn’t be set up like this.”
Nancy M. Ware, director of CSOSA since 2012, said the agency first tries to give offenders every chance to succeed before it labels someone an absconder, potentially sending an offender back to jail or prison.
“Sometimes a person is in a loss of contact for several days because they have a death in their family, they have some issue with children. There are all kinds of reasons that we lose contact,” she said. “With our population, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Ware said CSOSA has made strides in coordinating with D.C. police and other law enforcement agencies, including joint home visits to high-risk offenders. She also stressed that the number of CSOSA clients linked to violent crimes in the District is a small fraction of the roughly 17,000 offenders who cycle through supervision in a given year.
Ware said that the agency conducts a “fatality review” of every killer or victim who was under CSOSA supervision but has not been able to discern a pattern to prevent future violence. She suggested that those who do return to violent crime — especially those who kill — are often beyond the help of any government agency.
“They go into a liquor store or get into an argument with somebody and, you know, take that person out,” she said. “Or they are in a crap game and get mad at each other, so they have an incident where it escalates to the point of violence.
“In some cases, it’s people who have had a history with that person and it goes way, way back,” Ware said. “Their pasts may have caught up with them.”
CSOSA did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Post seeking detailed data on recidivism.
The federal office has almost 900 employees and an annual budget of $182 million.
CSOSA was born almost two decades ago out of a dark moment in the District’s history, when the city under then-Mayor Marion Barry was tumbling toward bankruptcy. As a condition of a federal bailout, Congress took control of most of the District’s criminal justice system.
Because it is a federal agency, CSOSA does not have to report to the District’s mayor or the D.C. Council. It also does not have to answer to the Justice Department. Its director is appointed by the president to a six-year term, and Congress, which has oversight, has not called a hearing on the agency in almost four years.
CSOSA’s unique position constrains its ability to help or monitor offenders. It lacks the resources of a state or local social services agency, such as the ability to provide short-term housing placements or care in long-term mental-health facilities for those too unstable to remain in the community. A new report from the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence said that almost half of all offenders returning to D.C. from federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
After 90 days under supervision of CSOSA, the report said, more than seven in 10 offenders capable of working had no job and nearly a third of those had no stable housing.
Fixing these problems is hard. It took years of lobbying, an act of Congress and the signature of President Obama this year to add two words — “and incentives” — in the agency’s federal charter. That insertion gives CSOSA the latitude to offer offenders not only punishments but also rewards for good behavior. The most-discussed incentive was $1.75 in D.C. bus fare to travel to job interviews.
It’s a stark contrast with rapid policy changes underway in states across the political spectrum, from Kansas to North Carolina, where in recent years officials have instituted programs that provide incentives but also, when offenders slip up, almost immediate overnight stays in jail.
In the District, court records show, it can take nearly two months for CSOSA officials to get a warrant approved and served.
“It’s really easy to see the next homicide coming, but they don’t connect the dots,” said Nardyne Jefferies, who has been advocating for policy changes in the District since 2010, when her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell, was among four people killed in a drive-by shooting carried out by several repeat offenders, including two under CSOSA supervision.
“Those who monitor these criminals have to do their jobs and be more proactive, because there is a lot of damage and destruction to families they are leaving behind out here,” Jefferies said. “It’s not like we’re flushing goldfish down the toilet — these were human beings. We had fed them and loved them.”
In court documents, the limited effectiveness of the agency is perhaps best reflected in one of the few punishments that it can order: electronic monitoring. Each year, the agency affixes ankle bracelets equipped with Global Positioning System transmitters onto roughly 1,700 repeat, violent or sexual offenders.
Agency documents say the goals of the program are to allow CSOSA to track offenders’ compliance with curfews, and set up restricted areas — around known territories for gang members, or schools and parks for sexual predators.
In recent years, court records show that offenders who tampered with the devices routinely faced little to no jail time, even after disabling them again and again. In 2012, a convicted robber cut off his GPS bracelet and later challenged his conviction for doing so. He argued that it wasn’t a crime because a civilian agency, and not a judge or parole commissioner, had ordered it. The D.C. Court of Appeals sided with the offender, Jeffrey Hunt.
Early this year, CSOSA successfully sought a warrant for 23-year-old Deandre Providence, saying he had repeatedly tampered with his GPS device, including failing to charge it. CSOSA was unable to locate him more than 10 times between December 2015 and February this year, court records show.
Providence, who was on supervised release stemming from a gun charge from 2013, was charged with tampering with a detection device. Prosecutors in March offered him a plea bargain, which he accepted: one night in jail.
Providence has since been arrested on charges of selling synthetic drugs and has been released pending trial. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
The agency did not publicly push to close the GPS loophole until September, after The Post reported that a judge allowed a violent offender, Antwon Pitt, to remain free after being found with a substance that appeared to be synthetic marijuana and a disabled GPS monitoring device. Pitt raped and beat a college professor in her Hill East home days later.
The D.C. mayor and council responded this month, with the support of CSOSA, passing emergency legislation designed to make removal of any GPS device a crime.
But CSOSA’s difficulties with electronic monitoring are not solved. It is not uncommon for offenders to commit new armed robberies, carjackings and even homicides while under GPS surveillance, according to a review of more than 200 Superior Court case files. The agency said 72 individuals under GPS monitoring were convicted of new crimes this year, which represents about 9 percent of the total convictions for those supervised by CSOSA.
Ware, the CSOSA director, acknowledged that GPS is not a magic bullet: “It’s definitely not a deterrent to crime, and I think that’s the misunderstanding sometimes about GPS,” she said.
Dalonte Weems, now in federal prison in Cumberland, Md., is among dozens of offenders who have brazenly — and repeatedly — committed crimes while under CSOSA monitoring.
In the fall of 2013, Weems had a bracelet on when he rang a doorbell and pointed a handgun at the man who answered. Weems, then 20, was under supervision for a previous conviction in his teens, and GPS data later showed Weems leaving his apartment, walking to the victim’s home and then departing. Through GPS, police tracked Weems to his apartment and found a loaded 9mm handgun in a closet, court records show.
Weems could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison for carrying a firearm without a license, but under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, he was given 20 months with all but 10 months suspended. The law allows young adult offenders younger than 22 to receive shorter sentences for some crimes and have their records sealed from public view.
By April 2015, Weems had twice more been fitted with a GPS device, the last time a month before he committed three armed robberies of taxicab drivers in the District’s Brightwood and U Street neighborhoods, according to charging documents.
In the last of those robberies, in May, the driver told police that after he arrived at his passenger’s requested destination, near Fort Totten, he felt the barrel of a gun against the right side of his head. The driver claimed that Weems and another person took $120 from the driver’s pocket as well as his ID badge, cellphone and wallet, documents show.
It is unclear from court records whether Weems was still wearing the GPS device at the time. A cellphone he had when he was arrested had been used to summon two of the taxis, according to court records.
Weems pleaded guilty to two counts of robbery and is scheduled to be released from prison in 2020. Weems declined a request for an interview.
As the District’s homicide tally was rising rapidly in the summer of 2015, during Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s first year in office, the tone was growing increasingly urgent at monthly closed-door meetings of the city’s local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, wanted to know whom he could talk to about getting CSOSA to share more information with police. He had attended meetings with officials in Maryland and other states where chiefs of police and corrections were cabinet members, but in the District he was not sure who was ultimately in charge of probation and parole.
“Who is your boss?” Donahue asked, turning to Ware, the director of CSOSA. He expected, perhaps, that she would answer with the name of an assistant attorney general or a high-ranking official in the federal prison system whom he could get on the phone or drive across town to see.
Instead, Ware’s answer floored Donahue. “I report to the president of the United States,” she said.
Ware and Donahue both confirmed the exchange. Ware told The Post: “That doesn’t mean I don’t also report to Congress and I don’t also report to the people of the District of Columbia.”
Donahue said recently, “I think it illustrates the complexity of the system within which we operate.”
By August 2015, nearly half of the suspects that D.C. police were charging in killings were offenders under the supervision of CSOSA or were free pending trial, according to briefing documents prepared for city law enforcement leaders. Bowser’s administration pushed for CSOSA to more aggressively monitor offenders who had been convicted of a violent crime.
Bowser could not change CSOSA’s charter, but she could affect the conditions that D.C. inmates must agree to for release. She introduced a bill to require offenders who had been convicted of a violent felony to submit to random searches of their person and residence by CSOSA.
But the agency lobbied against a more hands-on role. Cedrick Hendricks, a top CSOSA official, testified before the D.C. Council. He read a letter from Ware that called the proposal “problematic” because it would authorize CSOSA officers to seize firearms or other dangerous weapons that they were not trained to handle.
The letter from Ware also warned that the searches would “undermine” the relationships its officers seek to build with clients, to intervene positively in their lives.
“Many of CSOSA’s supervised clients are plagued by limited education, unemployment, unstable housing, frayed family relationships, and, increasingly, mental health needs,” she said. “This proposal would undermine the successes we have realized to date.”
D.C. officials testified that police could not conduct the searches if CSOSA refused to do so because officers need probable cause.
Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, said the proposal was unworkable and killed it.
McDuffie is among CSOSA’s many defenders in the city. He said CSOSA’s lack of transparency can undermine public confidence, but he believes the agency gets an outsize share of the blame for the failures of a confusing and inefficient system.
“They have an impossible job,” McDuffie said. “We need to start by doing a better job rehabilitating those who have been incarcerated before they are put back in the care of CSOSA and back into the community.”
Thomas H. Williams, who used to be in charge of all 500 probation and parole officers at the agency, said that during his years there that he tried unsuccessfully to get the Federal Bureau of Prisons to more deliberately match inmates with job training programs in prison so they could return with useful skills and ease the job of CSOSA.
“If a person wanted to have skills as an electrician, great, work on that while they’re inside,” Williams said. But years of meetings with federal prison officials, he said, led nowhere.
There are few national standards in parole and probation. Roughly 30 states have a centralized system for supervising former inmates. In the remainder, rules differ from place to place.
If there is one commonality, said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives at the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, it is that budget pressures and politics have forced every jurisdiction to search for more effective solutions.
CSOSA, however, operates in a realm unbound from such pressures, its budget requests largely fulfilled by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and Congress. It is also insulated from the local political pressures that the District’s elected leaders face to keep crime down.
When Congress authorized the creation of CSOSA in 1997, it made the agency an independent entity under the executive branch. The agency promulgated its own rules for dealing with the offenders coming under its supervision. When CSOSA lost contact with an offender, its employees were supposed to immediately begin a search, make phone calls to the offender and send a certified letter to the offender’s last known address.
The agency gave itself 21 days to complete the process — 18 days to hear from the offender, and another three to file a report of the missing with a judge or the parole commission — to start the process of getting a warrant to pick someone up, according to agency policy.
Ware said officers can move more quickly than 21 days, if they determine it is warranted.
But Williams, the former head of probation and parole, said the certified letter process is an embarrassment for the agency. The time frame for getting a warrant, he said, can stretch to 51 days because it can take roughly 30 days to schedule a hearing before a judge.
“The timeline is just too long,” Williams said.
Before working for CSOSA, Williams led Maryland’s statewide parole and probation system. He said CSOSA does as well as or better than Maryland in identifying offenders who pose a risk to the community. But he said the neighboring jurisdictions could not be more different in terms of how quickly they move to get problem offenders off the street.
“If I have a high-risk individual, I could write the warrant, take it to the judge and that same day it could be out for service” in Maryland, he said. “That culture has existed in Maryland for decades, but it does not exist in the District.”
In the case of Steven Pugh, CSOSA did not file its first report to a judge about his behavior until April 2014, after 41 days of near constant probation violations. Pugh was under supervision after firing a gun outside his Southwest apartment and pleading guilty to a charge of carrying a firearm.
A month after Pugh failed drug tests and after three weeks without any contact with him, a CSOSA officer did not list him as being in loss-of-contact status but, instead, classified Pugh’s overall adjustment as “unsatisfactory” and recommended that a judge send him to CSOSA’s 30-day mental health and drug assessment center. CSOSA declined to discuss Pugh’s case.
Before he could appear before the judge, Pugh got into an altercation with his girlfriend “about him wanting her to give him money,” according to a police report.
Pugh slapped the woman with an open hand around her face and head, said “F--- you, b----, you work, you get money!” and dragged her on the floor, cutting her elbow.
He took the woman’s purse and Metro card and her son’s stroller and fled. Pugh was arrested that night and later released.
Two months later, in July 2014, he was picked up on a warrant for a previous robbery conviction in Maryland. Pugh pleaded guilty and served most of the next year in jail in Prince George’s County.
When he returned to the District after serving his time, he was once again put on probation, this time for assaulting his girlfriend. CSOSA recommended that his probation be revoked, but a judge ordered Pugh to undergo a mental health evaluation and drug treatment. He quickly began violating again. Pugh skipped drug tests on “6/2/2015, 6/10/2015, 6/16/2015, 7/14/2015, 7/21/2015, 8/4/2015, 9/1/2015 and 9/15/2015,” according to another CSOSA violation report.
At a court hearing near the end of this period, a CSOSA officer backtracked from the recommendation to have Pugh’s probation revoked. The officer said that while Pugh had missed appointments and walked out of a drug-treatment program, he had attended other meetings and passed a urine test for drug use. He was left on probation.
On Sept. 19, police responded to reports of gunfire in Southeast and found Marcellus Green with a gunshot wound to the chest. Green’s ex-wife told reporters that he had been talking to the couple’s 11-year-old son when a car drove up and people inside began shooting.
Pugh was caught after a high-speed chase and charged with first-degree murder. He admitted to being the driver and conspiring to shoot someone he had a “beef” with on the block where Green was killed, according to a police affidavit. Pugh agreed to a plea deal for second-degree murder. He is awaiting sentencing.
Pugh’s attorneys declined to comment for this article.
Court records show Pugh was among 149 of the most high-risk offenders who were out of contact at some point last year.
In Maryland and Virginia, where probation and parole officials have some law enforcement powers, the states maintain websites identifying parole or probation absconders.
But CSOSA General Counsel Sheila Stokes said her agency cannot publish or share information in the District that might be considered personal in nature about those it supervises, because CSOSA does not have law enforcement powers and must observe federal privacy laws.
“They have not been convicted of an additional crime,” she said, “so we have to be careful how we characterize individuals in the public.”
Previously in this series:
Amy Brittain and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.