Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Tyrone Hall was smoking near the restaurant in Chinatown where he worked as a dishwasher. It was November 2017, and he was under court supervision after serving time for a 2015 armed robbery.

Hall had been out of prison for about four months when, while on his smoke break, Metropolitan Police Department Officer Orlando Perez approached. The officer suspected Hall of smoking weed, according to the police report. Perez describes in the report seeing a “hand rolled cigar” and smelling a “faint … pungent odor.”

Hall disputes the officer’s account and insists he was smoking a cigarette. He says Perez asked to see his ID, and when Hall couldn’t provide one, the officer grabbed him. Hall struggled to pull away and grabbed the officer’s arm in the process. MPD officers later arrested Hall from his workplace, according to court records.

The scuffle earned Hall a charge of assault on a police officer. He was never accused of any marijuana-related crime—the reason Perez confronted him in the first place.

Hall was acquitted of the misdemeanor crime after a bench trial. He says the judge rebuked Perez for putting his hands on Hall and for producing no evidence to support the officer’s accusation that he was smoking marijuana.

“The judge was furious with this police officer,” says Whitney Louchheim, who was in the courtroom that day and has known Hall for nearly a decade through her organization, Open City Advocates, which works with juveniles involved in the criminal justice system. She remembers the judge telling the police officer: “You had no right to touch Mr. Hall, and he had no responsibility to you to stop.”

Despite the judge’s harsh words for the officer, and even though Hall was cleared of wrongdoing in local court, his legal troubles were not over. The new charge meant that he’d violated the terms of his court-ordered supervision and would have to make his case to the U.S. Parole Commission—a federally controlled body that oversees parole and supervised release for D.C. offenders.

The Parole Commission gave Hall another 13 months in prison. In addition to the new charge, he’d also been testing positive for marijuana—a vice he says his supervision officer was aware of and one he was working to address. Smoking weed is technically a violation of his supervised release, but if not for the new charge, Hall believes, he would not have gone before the Parole Commission.

For years, legal advocates, lawyers, and judges have pointed to the Parole Commission as a source of injustice and a major driver of the over-incarceration of D.C. residents.

They say Hall’s case is a prime example where local decisions are trumped by federal authorities. Especially at a time when marijuana is partially legal in D.C., and Mayor Muriel Bowser recently proposed legislation to legalize and regulate weed sales, Hall’s case seems especially egregious, advocates say.

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In 2018, about 76 percent of the Parole Commission’s caseload, or 6,521 people, were D.C. code offenders, according to a 2018 report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which is part of a coalition of organizations pushing to bring parole under local control.

Last year, the Parole Commission was reauthorized by Congress for two years, rather than the usual five. Advocates take that as a potential signal that the feds are looking to get out of the parole game. With a $12.7 million budget for the Parole Commission, the question is whether local officials are willing to take on the responsibility, and how.

“To me this is the biggest issue in criminal justice reform in D.C.,” says Phil Fornaci, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “We’ve been trying to exert pressure on Council for quite some time, as well as the mayor. And the mayor has generally ignored us.”

***

In the mid ’90s, as the District struggled to pay its bills, Congress stepped in. The National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act passed in 1997, and, among other things, federalized most of D.C.’s criminal justice system.

Specifically, the Revitalization Act abolished the D.C. Board of Parole and transferred decision-making and oversight duties to the U.S. Parole Commission, which still decides whether to grant parole for current inmates and whether to revoke it for those under community supervision.

Around that same time, Congress was planning to gradually eliminate the Parole Commission. The federal parole system ended in 1987, and its number of parolees dwindled. Now D.C. offenders make up a majority of the commission’s caseload, along with federal inmates who were sentenced before 1987.

The Revitalization Act also created the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the federal agency that monitors D.C. code offenders after they’re released, and shuttered the Lorton prison. Now D.C. offenders serve time in federal facilities throughout the country, often far from their families.

Court cases throughout the 2000s challenged the Parole Commission’s decisions on releasing D.C. offenders.

One case, involving a man who was convicted of raping a Howard University student, was appealed to the Supreme Court. Ari Bailey was convicted in 1994, when the D.C. Board of Parole had its own a set of guidelines in place. The Parole Commission denied Bailey parole in ’04, ’07, ’10, and ’12. Bailey’s attorneys argued that the commission ignored the defunct local board’s guidelines, which included a numerical score that aided in decision making. In 2010 and 2012, Bailey’s score “indicated that parole should be granted,” according to court records. Yet the Parole Commission kept him locked up. 

In 2016, as Bailey’s case awaited a decision by the Supreme Court, 17 judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal advocates signed onto a letter that explained how the commission held D.C. offenders in prison longer than the system intended.

At the time Bailey was convicted, judges imposed sentence ranges, intending for offenders to serve the minimum number of years within the range. Without specific circumstances, such as bad behavior while in prison, offenders were presumed to be released, the letter says.

One of the signatories, the late Judge Mary Ellen Abrecht, told City Paper at the time that she was “surprised that the Parole [Commission] was sort of ignoring the judge’s sentence and establishing their own guidelines as to what kind of time the offense was worth.” 

In Bailey’s case, the Parole Commission denied him release in part because he did not participate in rehabilitative programs, according to court records.

In 2018, with Congress renewing the Parole Commission for only two years rather than five, advocates are trying to draw the attention of local elected officials.

The D.C. Reentry Task Force, a coalition of legal advocacy groups, has organized “speak out” events where individuals affected by the Parole Commission’s decisions tell their stories. During an event in April, one woman said the commission denied her husband parole because he hadn’t completed rehabilitative programming. But, she said, the facility where he is being held did not offer any. Another woman said her husband had been denied parole four times.

In January, Mayor Bowser awarded a $75,000 grant to the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal justice research nonprofit, to study the logistics of taking back local control of parole. Their report is due in September.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue says in an emailed statement that “we are pursuing measures to increase District autonomy over our local criminal justice system.” Donahue’s statement stops short of giving specific support for local control of parole, saying the JPI study will guide the administration’s next steps.

A spokesperson for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton writes via email that she will wait to weigh in until the mayor and Council have taken a position.

The path to local control would require D.C. legislation and funding for a new agency, as well as an act of Congress to amend the Revitalization Act. 

Fornaci believes D.C. Superior Court judges could play a role in a new localized parole system, but other advocates say D.C. should bring back a parole board. Either way, Fornaci says, “This is essential for D.C. statehood. It makes no sense to talk about D.C. being a state if we don’t have control of our own criminal system.”

***

As he walks through the Shaw neighborhood where he grew up, Hall points to a few landmarks: Cleveland Elementary, where he went to school, and Wanda’s on 7th, the hair salon whose owner he used to ask for a dollar.

He stops near the Metro PCS store that blasts go-go music onto the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW. When he’s not working as an advocate for the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, this is where he hangs out most of the day.

“The stuff that I used to do when I was 17, I look back on it now, and I shake my head,” he says. “I used to rob people in my neighborhood and get locked up for it ’cause I ain’t care. I was hungry, I ain’t have no money, and my mom did the best she could, you get what I’m sayin’, but she couldn’t really do much.”

Hall’s mother adopted him when he was a baby. His birth mother abandoned him at just a few months old in a stairwell, according to a report filed in one of his old criminal cases. 

He says by 12 years old he started getting in trouble for starting fires. By 17, he says, he was out of control. He finished high school but for the next decade cycled in and out of prison for drug possession, car theft, and robberies. 

Before the Parole Commission sent him back to prison most recently, he says he was helping his mother while she was in hospice care. She died in August 2018 while he was still incarcerated.

Since he was released last November, Hall started working part time, has an apartment, and has testified in front of the Council about issues facing returning citizens.

Ultimately, he wants to start a nonprofit music studio that helps juveniles caught in the criminal justice system. In the meantime, he’s started enrolling in programs to build a business plan, write a resume, and start saving money, he says. And he’s trying to stay out of trouble. He’s still under supervision until October 2020.