Parole boards often keep offenders in the dark. So, too, do the practices of the U.S. Parole Commission, which has jurisdiction over people convicted in the District.
These problems must not be ignored in any discussion of incarceration and its disproportionate effect on poor and minority communities.
The commission, a federal agency with broad discretion and limited accountability, has local jurisdiction because of the 1997 National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act. The act separated from the D.C. government certain criminal justice institutions and functions. It abolished the D.C. Board of Parole and transferred authority over D.C. parolees and supervisees to the commission; it abolished indeterminate sentences (sentences with a range of years) followed by a period of parole and replaced them with determinate sentences followed by a period of supervised release, and it closed the locally run prison facilities and transferred jurisdiction over most D.C. prisoners to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Most D.C. prisoners now serve their sentences at one of the Bureau of Prisons facilities throughout the country. They face unique parole challenges: They have limited, if any, access to direct family support; limited, if any, contact with defense attorneys specializing in parole matters; and limited access to reentry programming specific to the District. These formidable obstacles make it that much more difficult to achieve release at parole grant hearings.
In addition, D.C. residents who are released on supervision have greatly reduced due process and other protections for failing to comply with one or more conditions of supervision — violations such as missing appointments with a supervision officer, not keeping up with mental health treatment or smoking marijuana. Under the commission’s rules and practices, people are routinely held in jail pending a hearing, at great cost, and then sentenced to between 12 months and 16 months for minor violations. Fewer people also face revocation for committing a new crime while on supervision.
Moreover, the commission acknowledged that its data-based risk-assessment tool is flawed but still uses it as a guideline for sentencing decisions. The decades-old tool does not account for factors and behaviors shown to affect or predict recidivism, such as family support, job skills and employment, that parole authorities in other jurisdictions often consider.
The commission has some diversionary processes and programs that limit a person’s pre-hearing incarceration and/or sentence upon revocation, including a mental health diversion docket and secure diversionary drug treatment programs. But, while commendable, these programs are too limited.
Since the commission took over in 2000, the number of supervision revocations has increased, particularly the number of revocations based on minor violations; sentences have increased; and there’s an increasing lack of transparency in the revocation process.
In many cases, a person leaves a hearing with a favorable recommendation only to find that the decision has been overturned and a harsher sentence imposed by an unnamed commissioner he or she has never met and who did not attend the hearing.
In contrast, D.C. Superior Court judges, who address probation violations in open court, are generally much more amenable to alternatives to incarceration.
It is well past time to move beyond overly punitive mind-sets, unfair processes, inaccurate assessment tools and nontransparent procedures. Whether it is the commission or another entity that continues to hold such power over people convicted in the District, the rules and practices surrounding parole and parole revocation in the District should be a vital part of the broader dialogue about the urgent need for criminal justice reform.
The writer is director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.
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