When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) for legislation wresting control of the District’s parole system from the federal government — naming it critical on “our path to statehood” — she estimated the city would need two years to prepare.
That was in July 2020. But today D.C. today remains in virtually the same position: with no agreement on a path forward for a new parole system, even after agreeing to pay a company at least $765,000 to work on this and another criminal justice matter. Last Wednesday, the city told Congress in a closed-door meeting that it would need at least another two years to get it done, District officials said.
The delay means the city missed an opportunity to secure more local autonomy under a Democratic-controlled Congress. The fallout revealed stumbles in how the Bowser administration managed the work as officials — while asserting that D.C. knows best in arguing for local control — vexed local criminal justice experts by bringing in an outside firm. The holdup has an outsize impact on Black D.C. residents, who data show are overrepresented in the parole system.
The efforts come amid faltering commitments nationally to target the disproportionate impact policing and incarceration practices have had on communities of color. Urgency fueled by the 2020 murder of George Floyd waned as violent crime rates ticked up. And although lawmakers have sought to draw down prison populations across the United States, which incarcerates its citizens at higher rate than any other country, post-conviction reform lags.
In a statement on Friday, City Administrator Kevin Donahue said the administration “recognizes the importance of having local control over parole functions and its impact on the lives of incarcerated residents and their families.” He noted that the city needed to pass local legislation establishing a new parole system, with budgetary support, before Congress could transfer the authority to the District.
For now, D.C. parole decisions lie in the hands of the U.S. Parole Commission, a federal entity that reform advocates argue is overly punitive: slow to release eligible people from prison early and quick to return them for alleged violations.
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“The longer the delay, my fear is that you have people in jail for technical violations, losing their jobs, housing and gains they may have made, with the possibility of more prison time as a result,” said Michelle Bonner, a local attorney with parole expertise who the city briefly hired to help develop a local system. “And that is the biggest concern. The city had time to get this done and that did not happen.”
Norton, who had questioned earlier this year whether D.C. “really wants this” given the lack of progress, said through a spokeswoman that there was nothing more Congress could do this year since the city had not agreed on its own model yet. The mayor on Friday sent a letter to Congress formally asking for more time to “develop and fund the necessary infrastructure for assuming the commission’s parole functions.”
The District’s work toward designing a local parole system progressed slightly in the past year under the purview of former D.C. deputy mayor for public safety Christopher Geldart, who assumed that role in January 2021 and resigned this month after getting into an altercation in a parking lot. (Donahue is serving as interim.) But local criminal justice advocates and attorneys have criticized his decision to bring in an outside contractor to facilitate the project, frustrating local experts including Bonner.
Over the course of more than three months, spokespeople for the Bowser administration and Geldart would not make him available for an interview with The Washington Post about the progress, and ultimately declined the request without answering written questions.
The U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) took over the D.C. parole system in 1997, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and the Revitalization Act transferred most of its criminal justice functions to the federal government.
Bowser has said an agency whose commissioners do not live in D.C. should not be making decisions affecting District residents, and advocates have decried what they consider a harsh approach from the commission that leads to more incarceration. In just over the first half of 2022, roughly 12 percent of people booked into the D.C. jail were brought in for allegedly violating parole, according to D.C. Department of Corrections data from July.
Bowser echoed this concern in her July 2020 letter to Norton, saying USPC decisions have a “profound impact on thousands of D.C. residents and their families,” and that each year, “hundreds of D.C. parolees are returned to prison, often for technical violations.”
In a statement to The Post, USPC spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman said that the commission has “worked diligently in the last 10 years to drastically reduce the number of persons returned to prison for violations of parole and supervised release, especially for noncriminal violations.”
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She pointed to data showing significant reductions since 2011 and says the agency has tried to change its approach to alleged supervision violations with sanctions other than prison, particularly for people with substance abuse or mental health issues.
Still, the agency said it would cooperate with the city if D.C. wants to take the parole authority back. And that is largely because USPC now operates as a de facto D.C. agency. The federal government abolished parole in 1984 and so did D.C. in 2000. Now there is a system of “supervised release,” and both D.C. residents still eligible for parole and those subject to supervision are under the Commission’s jurisdiction. About 86 percent of the nearly 6,000 people under the commission’s jurisdiction are District residents, most of whom are on supervision following their release from prison, according to data the agency submits to Congress.
District officials have considered parole models such as a purely local board that would make all decisions about releasing people from prison on parole or terms of supervision after they are released. It has also considered involving D.C. Superior Court to varying degrees. The city in 2019 commissioned a lengthy review from the Justice Policy Institute, which explored some of those options and recommended D.C. invite community input to select the best proposal.
But at this point, the District has not agreed on what the mission of its parole board should be: How should it approach decisions about early release, supervision and returning people to prison? Some local advocates and attorneys do not want to see a new local parole board at all, believing that agencies with political appointees or who answer to government officials have incentive to keep people in jail to avoid political jabs that they are soft on crime, like some Republicans in Congress have said of the District.
The D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents people in parole hearings before USPC, said the District should put D.C. Superior Court exclusively in charge of parole and supervision decisions, calling parole boards “failed institutions and major drivers of mass incarceration.” D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine had previously echoed that belief in a hearing last year, citing an assessment from the American Law Institute.
“The District must prioritize shrinking the criminal legal system and protecting liberty and due process interests by listening to local experts who have deep knowledge from representing clients in the parole context,” Rashida Edmondson, chief of the parole division at the D.C. Public Defender Service, said in a statement.
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute said he completely understood that, after the pandemic hit, D.C. may not have be able to prioritize the parole project as much as he and others may have hoped. But since then, he said, “the length of time they have taken to return to this is inexcusable.
“The fact that it has not been reprioritized and advanced, there is no excuse for that,” Schindler said. “They needed to move forward much more quickly than they have.”
In August 2021, Geldart began discussions with Bonner and Olinda Moyd, another expert who spent 17 years as the chief attorney for the D.C. Public Defender Service’s parole division, to formally consult with D.C. on developing a structure for local parole.
Moyd and Bonner put together three draft proposals and began developing skeletal outlines of local legislation, with input from the community, including criminal justice and victim advocates. But they say the effort grew more complicated in December after Geldart sought external help to facilitate the parole project, as Washington City Paper and DCist have also reported.
The District paid the Center for Naval Analysis to support its efforts to develop a new parole board as well as map out violent crime in the District, which together cost at least $765,000 in one contract, according to city records, which do not show how much the city spent on each individual project, only on the whole contract. The D.C. Council is not required to approve contracts under $1 million, and in this case the letter contract expired Sept. 30 without council review, according to the Office of Contracting and Procurement.
The company’s proposal included a detailed timetable of tasks D.C. would need to complete to develop a new parole system by this November, many of which the city did not accomplish. District officials have said that in the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic as well as the city’s challenges with reducing violent crime have consumed much of its attention.
But even before the contractor began managing the parole project, Geldart’s office had begun detailing the structure of a potential new parole agency, including how many employees and how much office space it might require, according to documents reviewed by The Post that reveal some of the city’s work and communications related to the local parole efforts.
In February, the D.C. Department of General Services published a still active solicitation stating that the District was seeking an administrative space for a new parole agency, identified as the “Parole and Supervised Released Council.” It said the mayor “plans to introduce legislation in the coming months.”
For months, even into April, officials in Geldart’s office expressed tenuous hope that the D.C. Council could pass a bill this year and that a local parole system could be up and running sometime in 2023. But behind the scenes, conflicts arose with the contractor, CNA.
By spring, Moyd and Bonner felt that they could no longer work with the company, feeling as though they were now reporting to the firm rather than Geldart’s office, as originally discussed. In April, they both decided to stop working directly with the city.
“If we are working toward creating a local parole entity, and the number one complaint is that USCP is so far removed from D.C. residents, I felt uncomfortable being part of a process that included CNA which also had no connections to D.C. and no parole expertise,” Moyd said in an interview.
Bonner agreed: “The bottom line was that no, we could not work with them. I agreed to provide recommendations to the deputy mayor, not to provide recommendations to a company I know nothing about.” In response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for CNA referred questions to the District.
The Bowser administration has not responded to written questions from The Post about the scope of CNA’s work. D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the legislature’s judiciary committee, sent an information request to Geldart in July with similar questions, including CNA’s qualifications to work on parole and why the relationship with Moyd and Bonner soured.
Geldart responded to some of Allen’s questions in September, writing in his own letter that CNA has “extensive management experience in the public safety and justice space” while detailing their administrative work on the parole effort. On Moyd and Bonner, Geldart said that having a project manager helped ensure the two experts were paid correctly. They were paid in April after parting ways.
But the Arlington-based company, which handles both defense contracts and other domestic research projects, is no longer with the city on this project either. And D.C. officials have not released its findings or detailed a path forward.
Allen said in a July interview that he was concerned about how much time it would take for the city to pass legislation, fund and ultimately stand up an entirely new parole system, which by some estimates, he said, could cost up to $10 million per year. Like others, he pointed out that key parties are still split on whether local courts should be involved.
“There are credible people that are advocating for both of those scenarios, but the decision must get made,” Allen said. “Not everyone will be happy, but we have to make a decision because while the administration waits. It is real-life people who are being impacted.”
Frustrations flared up at a virtual September meeting that included representatives from the city as well as local criminal justice agencies, including public defenders and D.C. Superior Court, among others, to discuss a path forward on parole, according to two people in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks.
When a staffer from Geldart’s office began outlining granular details on D.C. parole, like how much staffing and computer space a new agency might require, some people at the meeting noted that they still had not come to an agreement on the best way to move forward.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said in an interview this month that no one seemed to be “on the same page,” which is why the city had yet to select a parole system model from a slate of options. “As we push for statehood, there are many incremental steps, and this would be one of them,” he said. “Within that context, it is a priority.”
But should Republicans take control of Congress from Democrats after the November midterms, it is unclear that they would support a bill to give D.C. authority over parole given they have historically been hostile to the District, particularly on criminal justice matters. And while not all local advocates agree on what type of parole system D.C. should adopt, they have watched with dismay as the progress has stalled.
“It does not change the fact that we are missing a chance to do something really doable, that has been such an area of passion for advocates for so long, that has through lines with statehood, improving racial equity in a very disparate system and the overuse of incarceration,” said Misty Thomas, executive director of the Council of Court Excellence, a nonprofit civic organization that works to enhance the D.C. justice system.
Thomas continued: “We have studied this extensively. There is not a lack of information available to city leaders. There is a lack of willpower to close the loop.”