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

Around this time a year ago, District leaders and activists harbored a faint but fading hope that the city would someday take back control of its parole system from the federal government. These days, that hope has been snuffed out.

Loose Lips hears that momentum behind this effort has vanished in recent months due to a variety of factors: Disinterest and disorganization within Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, a newly hostile Congress, and ongoing divisions among advocates about what a local parole board should look like. The end result is that the city has likely squandered a golden opportunity to simultaneously wrest more authority of its local affairs away from the feds and help its incarcerated residents.

Local parole has long been seen as a key step toward statehood, returning to the city some authority that it relinquished in the 1990s. But it’s also a way to substitute D.C.’s more lenient views on criminal punishment for those of the more regressive federal government. Accordingly, the issue was a priority for Bowser as recently as three years ago. But now it has slipped off the radar entirely, and LL can scarcely find a single politician still focused on the issue.

“Local parole is as good as dead in our current political climate,” one leading criminal justice activist tells LL, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about their work on the issue. “Bowser’s tough-on-crime turn is working against long-term reforms and further frustrating advocates.”

Soon enough, though, someone is going to have to do something about parole. The existing federal parole agency, the U.S. Parole Commission, only has the legislative authority to keep operating through November of this year, after Congress slipped a one-year extension into a massive government funding bill last year. 

The whole idea behind a recent raft of short-term extensions for the USPC was to give D.C. time to set up a framework for a local parole system and then step in for the feds; instead, the city has wasted that time and still has no plan for the future of its parole. Congress will almost certainly need to pass another extension to allow the USPC to continue operating later this year, but there’s no telling how much time the city will need because its leaders have gone AWOL on this issue.

The Washington Post reported in October 2022 that city officials told Congress they’d need another two years to prepare, but even that timeline now appears unrealistic given the general lack of progress. Bowser needs to propose legislation for a parole model she can live with, then the Council needs to pass it and fund it. None of that has happened. A spokesperson for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, says she’s heard nothing about the matter from Bowser or the Council in recent months. A USPC spokesperson also tells LL that the agency “has not heard from D.C. officials as to whether they still plan to request that parole functions be transferred to a D.C. authority.”

“It was never the intent on either side to see it as a reality,” says Louis Sawyer, who served time in federal prison and now advocates for returning citizens. He dubs both Bowser and the Council “impotent.”

Spokespeople for Bowser and her deputy mayor for public safety and justice, Lindsey Appiah, have not responded to LL’s requests for comment on the issue over the past several months. LL has heard rumblings from advocates that Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, the chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety with oversight of this issue, has discussed holding another hearing on parole once Council returns from its summer recess. But with violence on the rise in the city and Bowser demanding action from lawmakers, her focus has largely been elsewhere.

“It’s certainly something that we’ll be trying to move forward on as soon as we can,” Pinto said in an interview with LL earlier this year.

Even without local leaders’ bungling, the issue itself can feel esoteric and thoroughly confusing. D.C. technically abolished parole back in 2000 and replaced it with what’s known as “supervised release,” which is similar to parole but with additional strings attached. People who committed crimes in the years before 2000 are still eligible for parole, and the USPC decides who is paroled and oversees those on supervised release. It’s difficult to pin down the exact number of District residents under USPC’s control. Most estimates suggest that several thousand people are still eligible for parole or post-release supervision under the USPC’s jurisdiction.

But advocates say these factors should not make the issue feel any less urgent for D.C. leaders. D.C. residents have to adhere to a strict list of conditions upon their release from prison, so parole violations in the city are extremely frequent. D.C.’s Department of Corrections estimates that about 9 percent of people locked up in the D.C. Jail through July of this year have been accused of such violations. And once they’re inside, most have to wait months before the feds rule on whether their actions rise to a parole violation. A more progressive local parole board could start to change all that, and take back a key piece of D.C.’s criminal justice system, which is largely controlled by the feds, at the same time.

“It’s kind of like statehood,” says James Zeigler, co-executive director of The Second Look Project and an advocate for incarcerated people and returning citizens. “Everyone insists on maintaining morale like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do it.’ But it’s hard to see a path forward anytime soon.”

Bowser’s original plan, as she laid it out to Norton in July 2020, was to “plan, prepare, and fund an orderly transition of the parole function to local control” over the course of the next two years. Democrats finally had control of Congress and the presidency, so at the time, the stars were aligned in the city’s favor. And Norton followed through on her end, securing a two-year extension of the USPC’s authority.

The mayor’s team made some serious steps toward meeting that two-year deadline before things unraveled, according to emails and memos released to LL via a Freedom of Information Act request. Email correspondence from officials in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice between January and April 2022 show that Bowser’s administration had serious discussions about introducing legislation to create a local parole system and requesting funding from the Council to stand up a new parole board. The city’s real estate arm even put out a request for office space to house the new agency, the emails show, and officials discussed what sort of support it would need from the District’s IT department.

At the time, the city was working with a pair of former public defenders and criminal justice advocates, Michelle Bonner and Olinda Moyd, to advise officials on these efforts. But then-Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart, who would subsequently resign in scandal, also inked a deal with another nonprofit in December 2021 that sparked tensions with the pair of consultants. Unlike Bonner and Moyd, the Arlington-based Center for Naval Analyses that Geldart hired didn’t have much of a track record working in the District. Still, Geldart agreed to pay the firm about $1.6 million over two years to examine the parole question and conduct a broader study of D.C.’s criminal justice “ecosystem,” according to internal emails and memos.

By April, Bonner and Moyd distanced themselves from the effort, the emails show, as they couldn’t hammer out a way to work effectively with CNA. (This frustrated some advocates at the time, as well as Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who was then the judiciary committee chair.) Meagan Reed, then a policy adviser for Geldart, wrote to the USPC on April 6 that it is “increasingly looking like [the parole transfer to D.C.] may occur later in FY23 rather than later this year,” and began planning for a one-year reauthorization of the USPC’s authority.

“We plan to use the additional time from the 1-year reauthorization to conduct public and stakeholder engagement, finalize transition plans, and complete the legislative processes required to establish the new local agency (local legislation) and transfer authority to D.C. (Federal legislation),” Reed wrote in an April 22 email.

DMPSJ officials exchanged emails with CNA staffers over the next few months where they discussed potential models for a local parole board—suggesting continued uncertainty about what the new agency would look like. (Most local advocates and incarcerated people favor a new, stand-alone parole board, but D.C.’s influential Public Defender Service supports sending the job over to D.C. Superior Court judges. The Post reported that a meeting of city officials and advocates last fall devolved into bickering largely along these same fault lines.)

By August 2022, momentum was fading, according to internal emails. Reed wrote on Aug. 1 to CNA representatives to discuss scaling back their work with the city, and correspondence between D.C. officials and the organization slowed substantially over the next few months. The city’s initial contract with CNA expired on Sept. 30, and it does not appear to have been renewed. A spokesperson for the nonprofit didn’t respond to a request for comment, and neither CNA nor the city ever released a report describing their work.

“I’m disappointed in a good way, but I really enjoyed working with you and working on this project,” CNA research analyst John Bennett wrote to Reed on Oct. 17. “I’m optimistic about the future of this project, and I hope it continues in a positive direction for the residents of DC.”

Just a few days earlier, Geldart resigned his post after getting into an altercation with a trainer in an Arlington gym’s parking lot, and his departure only accelerated the parole project’s dissolution. City Administrator Kevin Donahue initially took over the deputy mayor post, and then Bowser tapped Appiah, Geldart’s chief of staff, in January 2023. (Reed, generally seen as the office’s main conduit to activist circles, left for the city administrator’s office around the same time.) Activists were never Geldart’s biggest fan, per se, but they say all the change in the upper echelons of Bowser’s criminal justice team ensured that the administration’s focus on the parole issue would pretty much vanish.

Several advocates have told LL that they also tried to meet with Appiah to discuss parole after her appointment at deputy mayor, without much success.

“She’s way better than Geldart, but that was a pretty low bar,” says the activist who requested anonymity. “She’s clearly smart and quite friendly. But she’s ultimately a Bowser loyalist who needs to build trust with justice reformers.”

Bowser’s behavior during the debate over revisions to the city’s criminal code, where she tacitly encouraged congressional Republicans to overturn that legislation due to her concerns with some of its provisions, did little to build that trust. Worse yet, advocates feel the whole episode emboldened the GOP to target the District on criminal justice issues, essentially vaporizing any chance of sneaking anything resembling a more forgiving parole agency past a Republican-controlled House.

“We couldn’t even get all the Dems in line [on the criminal code],” laments Zeigler, noting that there’s no guarantee of success even if the Democrats regain control of Congress next year. (Indeed, Reed noted in an October 2022 email that the District’s congressional allies were trying for a two-year extension of the USPC’s authority instead of just one “but they may not have the votes,” even with Democratic majorities in both chambers.)

Add it all up, and it seems the window for federal action has firmly slammed shut, and the District has pretty much given up on any preparation for it to ever reopen. The movement for D.C. autonomy broadly has taken a pounding over the past year, the first of Bowser’s third term, and it’s possible that the parole issue becomes too niche to remain part of it.

“The number of people eligible [for parole] is just going to grow smaller each year,” says Jonathan Smith, special counsel and former executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “There’s a risk that, in a few more years, that number will not justify the cost of setting up a local parole entity.”