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Opinion D.C. needs a local paroling authority

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Misty C. Thomas is executive director of the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to enhance the justice system in D.C.

For the past 24 years, the fates of D.C.’s incarcerated residents seeking parole and returning citizens accused of violating conditions of their release lie in the hands of the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC), an aloof and unaccountable federal agency.

Many of us celebrated when Congress voted to sunset the USPC’s authority in D.C. effective Nov. 1, 2022. That decision offered hope that an important criminal justice function could return to local control as the campaign for D.C. statehood gains momentum. It offered hope that D.C., not the federal government, could design a local parole authority with new regulations that center our community’s values in making equitable decisions about public safety and who should or should not be incarcerated.

Unfortunately, D.C. has failed to respond to Congress’s deadline and has no plan to resume control of paroling and release power by the 2022 deadline. This inaction has the capacity to harm thousands of D.C. residents each year and exacerbate inequities in our system.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) allocated $100,000 in the 2022 budget to further study a D.C. paroling model. The goals of that study are unclear, as expert practitioners, community groups and research organizations have already offered several viable paths for taking back local control within Congress’s timeline.

In the past two years, D.C. leaders have received detailed proposals from the District Task Force on Jails & Justice and the Justice Policy Institute on options for a new paroling authority and on the qualities and due process protections it should incorporate. As recently as May, the D.C. Council held a multi-hour hearing at which experts, including affected residents, the Public Defender Service and DC Justice Lab testified about the urgency of this issue and made concrete proposals to meet the 2022 deadline.

Advocates and community members have long agreed that D.C. needs a new paroling authority. It must be designed to undo decades of over-incarceration caused by harsh sentencing laws, restrictive parole grant policies and punitive revocation procedures, all of which disproportionately impact D.C.’s Black residents. Restoring local control could introduce greater procedural fairness and transparency, provide improved support for reentry, ensure treatment for behavioral health needs and emphasize restorative justice.

More than 600 people are incarcerated on parole-eligible D.C. sentences, and about 9,000 returning citizens are under correctional supervision in D.C. Unfortunately, these people are unlikely to get swift or meaningful consideration from the USPC, which is already decreasing its capacity in anticipation of the 2022 deadline and has drafted a transition plan to relinquish authority over D.C. residents.

Many of the men and women seeking parole have demonstrated rehabilitation efforts while incarcerated and deserve an opportunity to show that they can safely and productively return home.

Additionally, more than 1 in 10 of D.C.’s incarcerated residents is rearrested and detained because of release violations. These can include new criminal charges while on supervision as well as behavior considered “technical violations.” For example, under the USPC, a D.C. resident can be sent back to jail for missing an appointment with a parole officer or for testing positive for marijuana, even though other D.C. residents can use it recreationally. Also, a person can be returned to prison based on allegations of a new offense, even if that charge was not prosecuted or was dismissed in D.C. Superior Court.

We have a rare opportunity to create a new paroling authority that may provide greater due process for people facing revocation of release, reunite families, protect vulnerable victims and show that D.C. believes in second chances. More broadly, localizing the parole power is a step toward greater representation for D.C. residents. D.C. government estimates show the District can afford statehood, and these costs include a local parole authority.

As the final fiscal 2022 budget votes loom, the lack of urgency from the mayor and D.C. Council threatens our ability to regain local control over a critical criminal legal system function, even before D.C. achieves statehood. Failure to prioritize a new paroling authority in this budget dooms D.C. to miss Congress’s 2022 deadline at the expense of the people who seek to prove that they are more than just their convictions and are capable of succeeding as productive members of our community.

The window of opportunity is closing quickly, and D.C. leaders must come together to make clear decisions and investments to ensure that D.C. is poised to take over the duties of the USPC by fall 2022.

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