Five people in Chevy Chase now decide D.C. parole cases—but don’t quite meet their deadlines.
Herman Marshall couldn’t forget the date: April 13, 2000, the day he could leave Hope Village, the halfway house he’d been living in since January, and go home on parole. He had had his parole hearing in September, and the U.S. Parole Commission had granted him parole. At Hope Village, where Marshall was told he would be for three months, he did what he was supposed to: He found work and stayed out of trouble. In the mornings, he went to his job as a security guard; at night, he ate his dinner—often just a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich—and tried to ignore the occasional sound of gunfire he heard from across Langston Place SE.
But April 13 came and went, and still Marshall’s parole papers didn’t come. His wife, Sandra Burgess, called the commission again and again. “I had to light a fire under some people,” she says. Finally, in May, the paperwork came through; on May 13, a month behind schedule, he walked out of Hope Village a free man.
Prisoner advocates estimate that about 1,000 inmates currently face the same predicament Marshall did: waiting in prison or halfway houses for parole hearings that should have taken place—or parole papers that should have arrived—months earlier. By law, offenders must receive a parole hearing 180 days before the day they are eligible for parole, and the parole commission must tell inmates whether they’ve received parole within 21 days of the hearing.
The number of prisoners awaiting hearings or parole papers first surged in August 1998. That’s when the U.S. Parole Commission took over the job of granting parole from the D.C. Parole Board. Congress gave the federal panel its new job in 1997, as part of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Act—which also put other parts of D.C. government under federal control, including the city’s finances. But the transfer of responsibilities from one board to another has been rocky. Though the U.S. Parole Commission has in recent months reduced by several hundred the number of inmates awaiting hearings and parole papers, its staff is still overwhelmed.
And soon, the commission will have even more to do. Come Aug. 5, the commission will take over the remaining job of the D.C. Parole Board: revoking parole. When that happens, case analysts who already handle 70 D.C. parole applications on top of their federal caseload will take on an additional 3,200 D.C. offenders facing the prospect of returning to prison.
It’s a pretty scary prospect. Bungled hearing dates for parole applicants are frustrating for inmates and their families. Bungled hearings for people who need to be yanked off the streets and sent to jail are a public-safety problem.
And if Congress gets its way, it’s a problem D.C. residents may have to live with. Money for new staff is scarce. More concerned with meeting budget caps than implementing the Revitalization Act, Congress is currently considering cutting the commission’s $8 million 2001 budget by at least $1 million. “The situation is likely to get a little bit worse before it gets better,” says U.S. Parole Commission Vice Chairman Marie Ragghianti.
“Imagine if the FBI came in to take over the police department in Hartford, Conn. That’s what is going on here,” says Ben Kirby, commission spokesperson, about the commission’s new role as D.C.’s parole board.
The U.S. Parole Commission was set to pass out of existence in 2002. First set up in 1930 to make parole decisions for federal offenders, the commission lost its purpose for being in 1984, when Congress abolished parole for federal inmates. The commissioners still held responsibility for parole decisions for roughly 5,200 federal prisoners and 5,200 federal parolees who were convicted before 1984 and grandfathered in. But mulling parole questions for that dwindling population wasn’t going to keep the parole commission going indefinitely.
Then, in 1997, Congress handed the soon-to-be-moribund panel a new mission: D.C. offenders. And with it came something the commission didn’t expect: a vocal constituency right on the doorstep of its normally quiet offices in Chevy Chase, just around the corner from the Wisconsin Avenue Tiffany’s.
The commissioners, who were used to dealing with far-flung federal prisoners and their families through the mail, suddenly found themselves besieged with phone calls from D.C. inmates and their irate relatives. Last month, the commissioners met some of their constituents in person for the first time at a rare public hearing on their new parole guidelines for D.C. offenders. The commissioners smiled politely when one speaker, a gruff middle-aged man in a wheelchair, called the panel “racist.”
But many inmates and their families say there are too few opportunities to talk to the commissioners face to face. Prisoners and their advocates have accused the commission of being secretive and out of touch with District residents. They point out that, with the exception of Commissioner Janie Jeffers, none of the commissioners are from Washington: Chairman Michael Gaines is a former Arkansas state parole board chairman, Ragghianti is a former chairperson of the Tennessee Board of Parole, John Simpson is a former Secret Service director, and Edward F. Reilly Jr. is a former Kansas state legislator.
But Ragghianti insists that their past experience is relevant. “To some extent the District prison population is more comparable to the state populations many of us have dealt with,” she says. “In a way, it’s like coming home.”
Whether inmates and their families feel like welcoming the commissioners is another matter. Marshall didn’t get his papers on time, parole commission officials told him, because they couldn’t get all the documents they needed. Bureaucratic snafus such as incomplete files have been at the root of much of the backlog in parole hearings.
Shortly after the U.S. Parole Commission started granting parole to D.C. prisoners, the D.C. inmate population jumped from 9,400 to 10,700, in large part, says Corrections Trustee John Clarke, because “prisoners were not leaving the system.” Today the count stands at about 10,600.
“The backlog has to do with being able to collect information from [D.C. Department of Corrections] files. It’s no secret that DCDC files have been compromised. In the past, inmates have walked into hearings carrying their own files,” notes Ragghianti. And tougher standards keep some inmates in prison who might have been freed by the D.C. Parole Board.
“[The U.S. Parole Commissioners] have different expectations than the old D.C. Board of Parole, so that the kinds of packages of documents that the Department of Corrections was used to giving the D.C. Board of Parole are not necessarily adequate in many of these cases,” says Clarke.
In assessing parole cases, the federal newcomers also face some challenges their D.C. Parole Board predecessors never faced. With the impending closure of Lorton Reformatory, District inmates are being farmed out to more and more distant facilities. Just finding them has turned out to be downright complicated. Hearing commissioners have appeared at a prison to conduct a parole hearing only to find out the inmate in question had been moved to another facility. This scenario has occurred “repeatedly,” says Ragghianti.
“We would get a call from an inmate saying, ‘Why am I not having my hearing? I’m in Sussex,’” says Ragghianti. “When we look him up in the [Washington Area Law Enforcement System, a database of D.C. offenders maintained by the Department of Corrections], it says he’s at Youngstown. DCDC has had difficulty in keeping track of inmates. If we don’t know where they are, it’s impossible to hold hearings.”
Bad addresses have also meant that after inmates have had their hearings, many haven’t found out whether the commission had granted them parole within the 21-day time frame—in some cases, not until after their release date had come and gone. Clarke acknowledges that DCDC has had problems locating prisoners. He says a new system is in place that tracks inmates’ whereabouts “up to the minute.”
With the commission still working out the kinks of becoming D.C.’s new parole board, however, Congress’s budget cuts couldn’t come at a worse time. Commission officials estimate that the agency needs a 40 percent increase in staff. Justice Department officials are considering loaning staff to relieve some of the burden of overloaded parole analysts.
“Congress gave the U.S. Parole Commission responsibility for these D.C. functions, and Congress needs to give the commission money to do them. Everyone else gets stuck in the middle,” says Eric Lotke, Executive Director of the inmate advocacy group D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project. “Some people deserve parole, and some people aren’t ready. But people shouldn’t sit in prison simply because the commission can’t hear their cases in a timely fashion.” CP