Exterior of the DC Jail
The D.C. Jail. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

With unified Democratic control in Congress and the White House, Mayor Muriel Bowser has spent much of the past two years arguing forcefully for D.C. statehood. Yet at the same time, her administration has let a golden opportunity to seize more autonomy for the District slip away.

A newly friendly environment in federal Washington seemed to set the stage for D.C. to finally take back control of parole from the feds, a long-held goal of criminal justice reformers eager to see less punitive decisions for people hoping to reenter society. Bowser took steps in the right direction in the summer of 2020, teeing up a complex transition that required cooperation from Congress, but proceeded to drag her feet and gum up the works just when swift action was required.

That will likely leave these crucial decisions in the hands of the understaffed U.S. Parole Commission for at least the next year, and possibly several more in the future. The group (currently staffed with just two commissioners, neither of whom has any tie to D.C.) was originally designed to oversee a small number of people in federal prisons and members of the military convicted of crimes, but earned authority over parole in D.C. as part of efforts to bail out the city’s finances in 1997. Ever since then, the USPC has become infamous for its unforgiving release decisions and willingness to send people back to jail for minor parole violations. A local parole authority would, in theory, be much more accountable to D.C. residents.

And if Democrats lose control of Congress in November (as just about every election forecaster expects) it could be many years before D.C. has another chance to win this power back. Activists are hopeful for some sort of movement before the end of the year, but a lack of urgency from both Bowser and the D.C. Council has them fearing this window for change has slammed shut. Inaction could seriously set back all manner of reform efforts, too, considering many view this as a first step toward D.C. regaining other criminal justice functions (like keeping incarcerated people close to home instead of sending them off to far-flung federal facilities).

“This is a close-to-home example of how local government should not work,” Pam Bailey, who co-founded the group More Than Our Crimes to advocate for incarcerated residents, tells Loose Lips. “We say we want statehood, but this was a chance to do something, and I feel like we completely failed. D.C. residents in federal prison already feel completely ignored and invisible, and this has just accentuated it.”

Essentially, Bowser needs to decide what she wants a local parole system to look like—most local activists (and many incarcerated people) favor a reconstituted parole board functioning as a D.C. agency, but the city’s influential Public Defender Service supports sending the authority to the D.C. Superior Court. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but just about everyone close to this process says Bowser simply needs to pick one and press forward.

Maybe she’s hesitant to embrace a parole model that is too decarceral for her liking, or maybe she feared stoking controversy ahead of the June primary. Whatever the reason, Bowser has had a huge role in blocking any movement on this issue, all with a big deadline looming. The federal parole commission’s authority expires at the end of October, so some sort of congressional renewal will almost certainly be necessary.

“I’m hanging by my bootstraps here,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting representative in Congress. “I haven’t heard anything from them on this recently.”

Spokespeople for Bowser and her deputy mayor for public safety and justice, Chris Geldart, did not respond to requests for comment. And it seems Geldart’s office, in particular, is the source of frustration for many people working on the issue.

There have been all manner of studies and research papers delving into how D.C. could take back control of parole functions—the city itself commissioned one from the Justice Policy Institute in 2019—but Geldart opted to hire more consultants to hammer out the details in November 2021. They were tasked with providing a more granular look at what a new parole board could look like and how it might function, as Bowser generally seems to favor that approach. The superior court’s judges say they don’t have the capacity to take on parole duties, which has thrown a lot of cold water on that discussion.

Geldart’s choice of partners generally pleased advocates, however, as he picked a pair of former public defenders and criminal justice advocates: Michelle Bonner and Olinda Moyd. Many weren’t thrilled to see yet another delay, but they acknowledge there are big questions still to be answered—consider that it’s difficult to pin down how many people are even eligible for parole, after the city abolished the practice in 2000. The 2019 JPI report estimated that there were 883 people convicted of crimes before that date who are still eligible. A local parole authority would make release decisions for those prisoners as well as anyone convicted after 2000 who has served enough of their sentence to qualify for supervised release (a process a lot like parole, but with more strings attached). The latter category includes about 2,395 people as of 2018, per the JPI report.

Bonner and Moyd convened an informal advisory group of other attorneys and activists to draw up some initial plans, until things changed abruptly in April. Members of the group say Geldart cut ties with Bonner and Moyd without giving much notice, then turned around and handed out yet another contract for yet another consultant. This time, he picked the Center for Naval Analyses, an Arlington-based research nonprofit focused on a variety of national security and military-adjacent issues.

A spokesperson for the nonprofit, commonly known as CNA, confirmed that it is working with the Bowser administration via its Center for Justice Research and Innovation, but otherwise didn’t answer questions about this work.

“I believe the people on Geldart’s advisory group got punked and got played,” says Louis Sawyer, who spent years as a federal prisoner and now advocates for returning citizens. “It was a smokescreen, a sham…and I believe the mayor and her administration never intended on advocating or moving forward local control of parole.”

Members of that advisory group are starting to feel the same way. Misty Thomas, the executive director of the Council for Court Excellence, sent an email to Geldart on April 21 that was co-signed by 10 of the group’s participants, saying they were “baffled by and very skeptical of the decision” to ditch Bonner and Moyd in favor of CNA. They asked repeatedly for a meeting with Geldart on the matter but have yet to make much progress in setting one, according to email correspondence forwarded to LL. Bonner and Moyd themselves did not respond to requests for comment.

Even Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council’s judiciary committee and has held hearings on parole reform, says he’s felt kept in the dark. He sent a letter of his own to Geldart on Monday asking for any insight into what CNA is doing.

“We have a process now where I’m sending letters just to get basic information,” Allen says. “It continues to be a mess.”

Allen is specifically concerned that CNA “has no D.C. ties” and doesn’t seem to have much experience with parole matters. The nonprofit’s listed “justice and policing” experts include a variety of academics and criminal justice advocates, but plenty of former cops too. That’s given most activists a lot of pause about trusting the group’s conclusions. Many suspect Geldart, the longtime head of D.C.’s homeland security agency, chose to hire CNA based on his past experience instead of the group’s qualifications.

“It was a major betrayal hiring those people,” says Phil Fornaci, an attorney who has spent many years advocating for incarcerated people. “I just can’t imagine that group will recommend anything aimed at remedying past wrongs.”

Allen expects CNA will deliver some sort of report to guide Bowser’s path forward, but he has no idea when that might happen.

But even if Bowser won’t budge, why couldn’t the Council take matters into its own hands and pass legislation without waiting on her? Finding money for a new parole board might be a challenge, but advocates reason that there’s nothing stopping lawmakers from trying to force her hand.

Allen cautions that there are “any number of examples where, if there’s no mayoral buy-in, it just doesn’t get implemented.” He cites the relentless pushing it’s taken for the city to comply with the NEAR Act. Fornaci sees this as evidence that lawmakers are simply “afraid of the mayor,” but Allen is adamant that he would wait for Bowser in order to guarantee a successful transition.

“If this ends up being an executive agency, we’ve got to have an administration who is on board with it,” Allen says.

So it’s on Bowser to lay out some next steps, and she needs to do so quickly, considering that the USPC’s parole authority will expire in just over three months if Congress doesn’t act.

For his part, Allen would support a one-year extension to keep “everyone’s feet to the fire,” even if the city still isn’t ready to take control of parole by then. The Council has to pass a bill creating a new parole board and then find money in the budget to set it up (should D.C. support that approach), and that takes time.

The uncertainty worries Norton. “The longer extension, the better” is her mantra, reasoning that another two years may be appropriate. An aide to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells LL that his office has been floating a three-year extension to his Democratic colleagues, but has yet to find any takers. Grassley would even accept an 18-month deal if it means the Senate could squirrel this away into some other bill set to pass before the end of the year, the aide says.

Norton would find either of those options acceptable, particularly if it means the Senate (where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority) has already signed off on it. But she is also well aware of the possibility that any extension of that length would leave the matter up for debate after Republicans have seized control of Congress or perhaps even the presidency.

“Given that they want to restrict home rule and bring us back to the ‘90s and complain about high crime in D.C., it seems unlikely they’d be willing to pass this bill,” Norton says. “They’d be giving jurisdiction to a city they consider soft on crime.”

It’s all enough to make many activists skeptical that changes to the parole system will happen in the next several years (if they happen at all). Many doubted Bowser’s commitment to the issue even when the federal environment was much more hospitable, so they have little reason to believe she’d lead a fierce fight against Republican antagonists.

Bailey fears it will amount to a huge disappointment to the incarcerated men she works with. She convinced many of them to sign a petition pressing for a new parole board and has been speaking with them about exercising their newly granted right to vote in D.C. elections. If they lose faith that the government can work for them, she expects that many will tune out entirely. And all the while, they’ll remain stuck in famously violent federal prisons, far away from their families and without much hope of ever earning their release.

“Space in these places should be reserved for people who can’t safely be in the community, and that’s not what’s happening,” Thomas says. “Leadership means making a choice and doing the best to serve the community. That is not happening and that is incredibly disappointing.”