Every year, hundreds of people who were convicted of a District of Columbia offense appear before the United States Parole Commission. These hearings will determine whether they remain in prison or will be released to return home. Our Constitution places a high premium on liberty and demands that it not be denied without the highest level of due process. Parole is a shocking exception. Few of the ordinary guarantees of fairness are present. There is no opportunity to create a full record, to confront witnesses, pursue a meaningful appeal, or the guarantee of counsel. Incarcerated persons often face an arbitrary process alone concerning a decision with the gravest consequences for them, their family, and their community.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee has long fought to ensure that persons who are eligible for parole get a fair opportunity to come home. As part of these efforts, we recruit, train, and support pro bono lawyers to represent between 60 and 70 District of Columbia prisoners every year in parole proceedings.
Young People Are Often Given Unconscionably Long Sentences
The punitive parole system exacerbates the United States’ outlier use of very long terms of imprisonment, which is especially harsh for young people caught up in the system. Our clients Quinton Tabron and L.J. (L.J. asked that we not use his name) are but thousands of teens or persons in their early 20’s who are sentenced to very long terms in prison regardless of their youth. Mr. Tabron was only 17 years old when he was incarcerated in 1976. Although he was a minor at the time of the offense, Mr. Tabron was charged as an adult and received a sentence of 20 years to life. He spent 43 years in prison and when he was finally released in 2020, he was 61 years old. L.J. was 24 years old, married, and the father of young son when he was given a sentence of 14 years to life in prison. Life sentences are routinely handed down in the District and across the nation, something unheard of in most developed nations and of no value to public safety. Black and Brown youth make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison system in general and especially of those serving long sentences.
Programs to Successfully Achieve Parole and Return Home Are Frequently Unavailable
To successfully receive parole and to return to the community, education, training, medical and mental health care, and other programs and supports are critical. Yet, prison for those serving long sentences is often little more than confinement to a cage.
Upon entering the Federal Bureau of Prisons, L.J. quickly realized that “the system itself is not built for rehabilitation. You rehabilitate yourself.” Another individual incarcerated with L.J. pulled him aside and advised him to pursue all the educational options that he could. He told L.J. that “you have a way out. You put things in your tool belt. When you have the chance at life again, you have something to fall back on, educate yourself.” Based on this advice, L.J. tried to participate in as many programs as possible.
Unfortunately, participating in programming is surprisingly difficult. L.J. was frustrated to realize that his sentence made it much harder to get into programs: “every class I got into, I had to fight to get into that class.” Since he had an indeterminate sentence and no fixed release date, he was always last on the waitlist. Whether he was trying to participate in a drug program or a typing class, he had to “be persistent” to obtain the programming the United States Parole Commission wanted to see.
Mr. Tabron observed that prison “doesn’t prepare you for” society. In Mr. Tabron’s words, “all they want to do is pack the prison and forget about education. It is not about rehabilitation.” When the facilities “are always on lockdown,” it’s “so hard to complete a GED program.” Despite this instability, Mr. Tabron was able to complete many programs and receive his GED, though he wished that post-secondary education and trade skill opportunities had been made available to him.
Parole Hearings Are Kafkaesque and the Outcome Arbitrary
Incarcerated persons who have a sentence eligible for parole receive what is known as an indeterminate sentence: a minimum and maximum term of incarceration. Individuals are eligible for parole at the expiration of the minimum term less any good-time earned and must be released at the maximum term. In DC indeterminate sentences were replaced by a specific – or determinate sentence – system in 2000. There are more than 600 individuals still incarcerated since before 2000.
Even though the Court already determined that the minimum term was an “appropriate” punishment, individuals are rarely released to parole until they have served long past that date regardless of their conduct in prison. Mr. Tabron first became eligible for parole in 1996. He was denied parole. Over the next 23 years, Mr. Tabron would have more than 15 parole hearings. Hoping to improve his changes for release, Mr. Tabron participated in as many programs as possible. “Any program that you get is a plus. Any program, whatever it is,” it can help someone get parole.
A Lawyer Matters
Parole hearings are informal and lack the procedural protections expected in a proceeding of such consequence. The presence of a lawyer can make an enormous difference, helping to emphasize programming and other achievements, contextualizing discipline infractions, raising family and community supports, and otherwise painting a complete picture of the incarcerated person.
Disciplinary infractions also had a “major” impact on Mr. Tabron’s parole hearings. Mr. Tabron was frustrated to realize that the mere existence of a disciplinary infraction, without an investigation or the ability to explain the context around it, was enough to get a parole denial. He quickly realized that “for the smallest thing they will give you an incident report.” Mr. Tabron said he hoped attorneys would understand that the paper record of disciplinary violations does not tell someone’s full story. Since the disciplinary infraction reports are written just by BOP staff, they leave out the perspective of the person who is incarcerated. In Mr. Tabron’s words, “they do what they want to do. They write what they want to write.” Without a lawyer, he had no meaningful opportunity to place the incidents in a context or to make them persuasive. Mr. Tabron connected with WLC, who helped find him pro bono representation for his last two parole hearings. With counsel, Mr. Tabron was finally granted parole and released in 2020.
By the time he was eligible for parole, after 14 years in prison, L.J. had participated in as many programs as he could and did not have a single disciplinary violation. He also did not have an attorney. L.J. thought that “my record in prison would speak loudly for me,” but without any representation, the Parole Commission “didn’t take anything into consideration except the nature of my offense.” Despite a finding under D.C. guidelines that he was a good candidate for release, the Parole Commission denied him parole after the victim’s family spoke against his release. In addition, although individuals are ordinarily given the opportunity to apply for parole every year, L.J. was given a 3 year “hit” or set off, meaning he would have to serve 3 more years before he was eligible for another parole hearing.
By the time of his second parole hearing three years later, L.J. had even more programming in his tool belt, a clean prison record, and the support of his BOP Case Manager—who spoke on his behalf at the parole hearing. Taking all of that into account, the Parole Commission Hearing Examiner recommended L.J. for release. However, despite the recommendations, the Parole Commission denied him parole and again gave him a three year set-off. When he was finally eligible for parole again, L.J. was again recommended for release, and again the Parole Commission denied him parole, despite having complete the most intensive programming available and no disciplinary violations.
Before L.J.’s fourth parole hearing, he connected with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, who recruited a pro bono attorney to represent him at his next parole hearing. According to L.J., his lawyer “really fought for me.” He recounted how once his lawyer “got a chance to speak” at the parole hearing, “she laid it all on the table… they had no choice but to release me.” With his lawyer’s help, L.J. was finally granted parole and released after 23 years of incarceration.
L.J. believed that having a parole attorney “was one of the biggest differences in my case” and a large reason why he was finally granted parole at his fourth hearing. When asked what advice he would give to attorneys who are new to parole work, L.J. recommended that they “be prepared to fight… If you believe in the person you are representing, fight for them. Because the system is fighting against them to keep them in prison.”
Refusing to Bring People Home Harms Their Families and Community
The incarcerated person is not the only one harmed by excessive and punitive incarceration nor the arbitrariness of the system. The burden and pain is wide-spread. Mr. Tabron’s family was deeply affected by his long incarceration. Over the course of the 43 years some family members “stopped believing that I was coming home.” During this difficult time, Mr. Tabron’s mother was a source of hope and encouragement: “every time I was denied parole, she had something positive to say.” Even when it was difficult for Mr. Tabron to hold on to hope of his release, “my mother believed I was coming home.” When Mr. Tabron was finally released in 2020, he was able to spend time with his 93-year-old mother, who had never given up hope of seeing her son free again. She supported Mr. Tabron in “trying to stay positive” as he found a job and reunited with family. She was a force of hope for Mr. Tabron: “all she prayed was for me to come home. I came home.”
L.J.’s long incarceration and multiple parole denials took a toll on his family back home. It was hard for them to get their hopes up and for him to be so far away. Even when L.J. was denied parole and it was easy to lose faith, L.J. said that “wanting to see my family again… kept me focused on getting out of prison.” Knowing that he was loved and missed kept him motivated and focused on preparing for the next parole hearing.
More Is Needed to Successfully Transition People Home
More support is essential for people coming home. Jobs, housing, education, training, will ensure success for returning citizens. When L.J. returned home to D.C., he felt lucky to have a family and a “stable foundation” to come home to. He credits his family for supporting him through the transition home. “If you don’t have that, it’s kind of hard,” L.J. said. Since his release from prison, L.J. has secured employment, started multiple businesses, and he spends his rare free moments with his family. For those individuals from D.C. who have yet to be granted parole, L.J. hopes that his story will help someone, and “change [people’s] perspective” on parole. “I would like people to fight for D.C. to get parole back,” L.J. said. “We don’t have a lot of people fighting for us, so thank you.”
When Mr. Tabron first returned home, there were “a lot of things that shocked me… the whole society changed.” Mr. Tabron explains that he is still learning to work his smart phone: “it’s a new world.” Even when people are released, Mr. Tabron explains, supervision means they live a “totally controlled” life. Being late to a meeting or not being accepted into a program you apply for, “all this type of stuff, you get violated for.” Mr. Tabron recognizes that other individuals who are released on parole may not have the “family support” that he did. They might be released and “still have institution clothes on” and they “don’t have any money in their pockets.” Without any support, Mr. Tabron questioned how a person can “focus on a job training program” when they don’t have money for food.
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Justice and decency require a dramatic change to the parole and carceral systems. The United States uses prisons in a way that no other nation does. Despite that five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, we have more than twenty-two percent of the world’s prisoners. Excessive harms public safety, targets Black and Brown people, and is unjust. Parole is one piece, but an important one, in solving the problem.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee has long worked to address unconstitutional conditions in prisons. However, we recognize that there can be no such thing as a just, humane, and safe prison. Bringing people home is amongst the most effective way to address mass incarceration and its profoundly racist consequences.
We need more lawyers to take these cases. If you want to handle a parole matter, please contact Stacey_Litner@washlaw.org.