These days, when an inmate violates his parole, he is taken to the D.C. Jail until a hearing examiner makes the trip from the Chevy Chase offices of the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) to decide whether the charges are enough to hold the parolee and, if so, for how long. But the USPC now proposes to do away with the trip into the District and conduct the hearings by camera—and the city gets no say in the matter.
According to a USPC memo, the move is expected to allow examiners to move cases quicker, free up support staff, and save time and money by lessening downtime for employees. “It makes for a more efficient operation,” says Tom Hutchison, chief of staff for the federal agency, which has handled D.C. parole matters since the District-run Lorton Prison closed in 1999. He emphasizes that these hearings are “not a finding of whether someone is guilty or innocent.”
But prisoner advocates say that the decisions can be momentous all the same and that inmates deserve a face-to-face meeting. “The commission is making the final decision of whether so-and-so from Southeast D.C. is going to spend another 18 months in prison,” says Philip Fornaci, head of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
“When you’re trying someone,” he says, “you generally want to watch their demeanor, hear what they say, watch their body language, see if they’re telling the truth. And digital feed is not exactly lifelike.”
Fornaci disputes the USPC’s assertion that cameras are a time- and money-saving tool. The agency isn’t exactly swamped with federal criminals, he argues; D.C. parolees comprise the bulk of its cases, so the USPC should be obliged to provide live hearings. But Fornaci realizes there’s not much that anyone outside of Congress can do about it. “They’re an independent federal agency,” he says of the USPC. “They’re answerable to almost no one. So they’re doing this because they can.”