By his third appearance in front of the U.S. Parole Commission, James Dunn had all but given up.

Imprisoned in 1991 at age 19, the D.C. native spent a decade behind bars for a drug-related offense before starting a 15-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. Without any blemishes on his disciplinary record, a parole examiner recommended Dunn’s release when he first became eligible in 2010.

But the U.S. Parole Commission, which determines parole eligibility for hundreds of D.C. prisoners with indeterminate sentences, denied him. The commission denied him again in 2013. And again in 2018, citing the severity of his original offense.

“My journey with the parole board was full of disappointment. I didn’t want to go or even tell my family anymore because it was so emotionally draining,” said Dunn, who was released in 2019 after 29 years, thanks to a separate law intended to give teenage offenders a second chance. “Had it not been for the [law], I would still be in prison waiting to see the parole board again.”

Current and former D.C. prisoners claim Dunn’s experience mirrors that of hundreds who have faced the federal U.S. Parole Commission, which they say frequently denies release without reason and does not include a single District native. But a desire to localize parole functions has sparked an impassioned debate over competing visions of what a D.C. parole board should look like — with a looming deadline to make it happen adding to the urgency.

In a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) last year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked Norton to file legislation to return the paroling authority to D.C., lamenting how the U.S. Parole Commission sent hundreds of parolees back to prison for “technical violations.”

“Autonomy over parole is an important step we must take on our path to statehood,” she added.

The U.S. Parole Commission’s authority was set to expire last year, though at the mayor’s request, Norton also pushed Congress to extend the deadline until November 2022, which Bowser said would be sufficient time to transition parole functions.

Beverly Perry, Bowser’s senior adviser, said the District is on track to meet the deadline. But there is not yet legislation in motion nor sufficient funding included in the fiscal 2022 budget now before the D.C. Council to create a parole board, and Norton said she had not seen “any indication that D.C. is anxious to get this particular function back.”

Her bill seeking to give D.C. local control of parole will not go anywhere in Congress, she said, unless the mayor and council act first.

“Consistent with my own push for statehood, of course I was gung ho about giving this authority back to the District,” she said. “But the District has taken no action to prepare for this reversion.”

A measurement of obedience

The U.S. Parole Commission took over control of D.C.’s parole and supervision functions as part of the 1997 Revitalization Act, which transferred the vast majority of the District’s justice system to federal hands while the city was weathering a major financial crisis. With statehood, local control of parole would be returned to D.C.

But more than 20 years later, the U.S. Parole Commission is operating as a de facto D.C. agency.

D.C. offenders account for roughly 90 percent of people under the commission’s control, or nearly 7,000 people, according to data the commission submits to Congress. Its responsibilities are lopsided toward D.C. because federal law abolished the use of parole in federal sentencing in 1984. But the agency, which meets in D.C., includes just two commissioners — a Marylander and Kentucky native — both of whom are nominated by the president and not accountable to any D.C. entity. Prisoners from D.C. cannot appeal decisions granting or denying parole.

Because parole was also abolished in D.C. in 2000, there are fewer than 700 D.C. prisoners remaining with parole-eligible sentences. But the rest — offenders who will be or are released from prison on community supervision after serving fixed sentences — must still report to the U.S. Parole Commission, accounting for much of its caseload. This means the agency also has the power to send D.C. residents back to prison for parole or supervision violations — which it does to hundreds of people per year.

Roughly 30 percent of arrests for alleged parole or supervision violations annually are for “technical violations,” not new crimes, according to data the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency submits to Congress. Those violations can include anything from being unable to get a job to being friends with a felon or failing to complete drug or mental health treatment, said Rashida Edmondson, chief of the parole division at D.C.’s Public Defender Service. Only a sliver of violations, roughly 5 percent, are for alleged violent offenses.

Black residents are almost exclusively affected by the parole system: Each year, they make up about 95 percent of people sentenced to prison for felonies in D.C.

Patrice Sulton, executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab — a criminal justice advocacy group — said the U.S. Parole Commission’s punitive rather than rehabilitative approach to supervision has created a system more focused on measuring “whether Black people are obedient, not whether our communities are safe.”

The result, Sulton said, is a racially disproportionate parole system that drives high rates of incarceration in D.C. while depriving people the opportunity to rebuild their lives. At any given time in the D.C. jail, about
10 to 15 percent of people are there for an alleged parole or supervision violation — and they can sometimes spend months behind bars awaiting a hearing, only for the U.S. Parole Commission to find no violation occurred.

By then, Sulton said, the person may have lost their new job or new apartment.

“Instead of measuring what we’re doing to help people to reintegrate, we’re measuring how well they can comply with technical requirements that often aren’t designed to help them at all,” Sulton said.

The U.S. Parole Commission did not respond to a request for comment, but its acting chairwoman, Patricia Cushwa, has previously said the agency supports relinquishing authority to D.C.

Competing visions

Advocates who seek changes in prison policy say these glaring problems with parole require a more urgent response than D.C. has provided. In a petition released in July, nearly 100 incarcerated D.C. residents called on Bowser to include funding in her fiscal 2022 budget to create a local parole board and for the D.C. Council to pass legislation that would spur its creation.

The council is expected to take its final votes on the city’s $17.5 billion budget in the coming weeks. But Bowser proposed just $100,000 in her budget to “support operational and planning control of parole functions,” which Perry said will enable D.C. leaders to consider multiple options for eventually taking on the parole system.

City officials have estimated it could cost anywhere between $4 million to $13 million to stand up a parole board in D.C. Charles Feinberg, executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a nonprofit regional prison reform advocacy group, said the amount budgeted is a far cry from what’s necessary to get a parole system up and running.

“We just feel D.C. trumpets it wants to be a state — here’s one example of the [federal] government being willing to give us back something — we feel they’re dragging their feet about it,” Feinberg said. “There would need to be some time to set this up, time to hire staff. We want to do this right.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s committee on the judiciary and public safety, said in an interview that lack of consensus among advocates and those affected by the process over how to best implement a local parole system has caused a delay. There was a contentious debate about the best path forward at a hearing he hosted in May.

While some advocates are in favor of a local parole board appointed by the mayor and council, others feel strongly that the responsibility should lie with the D.C. Superior Court, where there would be a clear process for judicial appeal.

“We struggle with the pros and cons to either path. Whatever decision we make, it’ll affect the trajectory of our criminal justice system and affect thousands of residents,” Allen said. “I can understand people are not seeing that action in the budget, but a lot of work is being done to see how we should move forward with this.”

Jeremiah Mungo, 44, was among the signatories on the July petition, which called for at least one formerly incarcerated resident to be on D.C.’s new local parole board. This way, Mungo said, the values of many could carry weight, compared with a single Superior Court judge.

Mungo has spent more than 24 years in prison after being convicted on two counts of second-degree murder. He received a 40-year-to-life sentence and is eligible to see the U.S. Parole Commission in 2030 — a date he has little optimism about.

“I would like for someone who’s formerly incarcerated to be on the board and someone that grew up in D.C. who can relate to our circumstances,” said Mungo, who is being held in a medium-security federal prison in South Carolina. “There should also be someone who’s outspoken for victims’ rights on there. It should be a variety of people — it should be well-balanced and objective.”

Kristin Eliason, director of legal and strategic advocacy at the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., said her organization is in favor of a local parole board for the same reason.

She said crime victims can too often be viewed as a monolithic group that only wants to see perpetrators incarcerated for as long as possible — but that’s not always the case. Many, she said, value a restorative justice approach: a way to talk honestly with the person who wronged them about how the crime affected them and to agree on a path forward for the incarcerated person that still makes the victim feel safe. Restorative justice is not emphasized in the federal parole system, she said.

“How do we look at parole and parole revocation as something that isn’t going to be necessarily punishment,” Eliason said, “but is more everybody working together to help the person out on parole succeed and not reoffend?”

An appeal for due process

But Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said D.C. had problems with its local parole board before the federal commission took it over. Like the Public Defender Service, he is among the lawyers who believe the D.C. Superior Court would be better suited to take over parole functions.

Even a well-intentioned local parole board, he said, could be subject to political pressure. He argued it would be too difficult to replicate a courtroom’s due process protections — ranging from the right to appeal to the right to call witnesses — in front of a civilian government agency.

Whether the D.C. Superior Court judges even want the responsibility, however, is a different story. In a letter to Allen in May, judges warned that they did not have the resources to take on an additional major responsibility that they anticipated would worsen caseload backlogs and lead to delays in justice.

“While we appreciate the interest expressed by certain advocates in having the Courts assume the parole function, it is not in the best interest of the Courts or the community we serve to do so,” the judges wrote, instead advocating that D.C. create its own parole board.

Edmondson of the Public Defender Service argued that capacity problems could be alleviated if Congress acted to fill the judicial vacancies on the Superior Court, and workloads would be smaller if courts revoked parole less frequently than the U.S. commission.

Allen said D.C. leaders will likely need to ask Congress to extend the November 2022 deadline for an additional year, giving D.C. more time to get a plan in motion. But Perry, Bowser’s senior adviser, disagrees.

Perry said it would take less than a year for the council to pass legislation and stand up a board, saying the initial process would be neither time-consuming nor difficult. “You need an executive director and a place to meet,” she added.

So far, Perry said Bowser’s administration sees a traditional board — or a hybrid system where the Superior Court handles appeals — as most preferable.

“The Superior Court model doesn’t offer us what we look for in establishing institutions in the city that reflect D.C. values,” she said. “The focus right now is to meet the deadline or to at least decide on a model, and let the model dictate it can’t be done.”

As debate continues over how to best transition to local control, lawmakers and advocates agree on one thing: Change is imperative.

Dunn still wonders why exactly he was denied parole three times despite the growth he demonstrated over nearly three decades behind bars, mentoring other inmates and teaching numerous classes.

But he always knew he would get a second chance. Since his release, Dunn has worked as a violence interrupter under the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, using his experiences to encourage at-risk youth who’ve been affected or exposed to gun violence — like he was — to consider alternatives.

He says the current parole system is keeping an untold number of people in prison from making the same positive change that he has.

“These programs didn’t exist when I was growing up. . . . People I knew were murdered, yet no one pulled me to the side and told me about trauma,” Dunn said. “There are guys in prison now who could be an asset, who could do the type of work I’m doing.”