In 1997 the District of Columbia was in deep financial crisis and the United States Congress enacted the DC Revitalization Act to provide financial stability. In exchange for financial relief, the District lost control of its criminal justice system and critical functions were transferred to the federal government. As part of the Revitalization Act, all DC prisoners were transferred from the local Lorton Prison Complex in Virginia to federal Bureau of Prisons facilities across the country.
The same law also abolished the DC Board of Parole, vesting decision-making authority in the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) for grants of parole for DC prisoners and for revocations of parole and supervised release for DC’s returning citizens. More than 80 percent of the USPC’s workload involves local DC parole matters, yet its members have no legal or political connection with the District’s electorate, and their punitive actions are not accountable to any DC court or agency.
For the last year, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee—working with other advocates from the DC Public Defender, University Legal Services and the DC Reentry Taskforce, and with pro bono assistance from Drinker Biddle & Reath—has spearheaded efforts to restore local control of parole to DC To be successful, this initiative will require both DC and federal legislation, representing the first effort by DC to restore some measure of local control of our criminal system to DC The USPC’s continuing existence is subject to periodic Congressional reauthorizations, with the current USPC authorization set to expire in November 2018. The time is ripe for this initiative.
Restoration of local control of parole in DC could result in a dramatic decrease in mass incarceration in DC Of the 4,700 DC prisoners now held in federal prisons, about 1,300 prisoners who were sentenced before 2000 are eligible to be paroled but are being denied release by the USPC. Another 1,700 or more DC prisoners are held on parole/supervised release violations. These men and women have been incarcerated by the USPC for technical violations of parole rules, not for breaking the law. Additionally, about one-third of the DC jail population is being held on parole/supervised release violations. A local DC Board of Parole and more humane practices could lead to a dramatic decrease in DC’s incarcerated population.
After successful meetings with DC Council members and a well-attended public forum sponsored by the DC Statehood Coalition on the issue in 2017, advocates briefed DC Council staff in March 2018 on the issue of local control of parole and distributed our comprehensive “white paper” on the issue. Soon after the Council briefing, the Office of the Deputy Mayor authorized funding in FY2019 for a technical study of the feasibility of restoring the DC Board of Parole. Although these are important steps, we have a long road ahead of us.
If you would like to be included in future updates and action opportunities around this effort, email Phil_Fornaci@washlaw.org. You can also get our newsletter and follow the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Twitter and Facebook to keep up with the latest news on this and other initiatives.