Guest Editorial: Thoughts on Local Control of DC’s Parole Function

Author: Malcolm C. Young

This post was summarized from communications and testimony to the DC Council on the issue of the District taking over control of the parole function, currently under federal control.

I have some experience in criminal justice and was a participant in the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety’s roundtable hearings on parole on May 6, 2021. After the roundtable I sent in supplemental testimony to follow up on some of the things presented by other participants after I had given my testimony.

It has taken years of persistent advocacy to bring the District to the point of seriously considering taking over the parole functions now under the control of the United States Parole Commission (USPC). To date, neither the Mayor’s office nor the Council have taken any substantive steps to assume responsibility for this parole function once the USPC sunsets at the end of 2022.

I give credit to Judiciary Committee Chairperson Allen for taking the initiative here. The rest of the Council and the Mayor’s office has at most taken a decidedly passive approach, with the result that, as Chairperson Allen said during the roundtable, we’re not even at the point of considering legislation for something that must be in place early in the coming Fiscal Year.

A group of volunteers associated with the ReThink Justice DC Coalition and the DC Reentry Task Force, including myself, have done a lot of work to develop a workable model for a new parole authority in the District of Columbia. We have had a concrete proposal in the form of a concept paper in circulation since early April [ link ].

An Alternative: House the Parole Function in the Superior Court

Some parties, notably the Public Defender Service, have advocated placing responsibility for the parole functions in Superior Court. It’s to be noted, however, that the Court itself has not encouraged this. The Council for Court Excellence concluded, after a thorough review and somewhat reluctantly, that Superior Court is not able to assume responsibility for parole functions at this time or in the foreseeable future.  Given the need for Council action, it was disappointing not even to have a resolution of the Superior Court’s role or to come to grips with a few of the important details of an entity that might handle parole functions.

Looking ahead, I have encouraged the Judiciary Committee to move ahead with legislation which must be passed by the Council if the District is not to simply again default on taking control of parole functions. Most important, I believe the Council needs to encourage the Mayor to support putting adequate funds — we have estimated an $8.4 million budget for start-up and full year operations – into the upcoming budget for a new parole authority.

Is a Parole Entity or Board Model Feasible?

The May 6, 2021 Roundtable hearings were organized so that the testimony of those who favor the District creating an independent parole authority testified before those who favored a Superior Court model and others who opposed anything that resembled their image of a parole board. Chairman Allen, and others, asked rhetorically whether there are any good model parole boards in the country.

In support of a negative answer to this question, at least one person referenced a survey by the Prison Policy Initiative which “awarded” a failing “grade” for the way the majority of states manage parole. However, the Prison Policy Initiative survey does not support this conclusion, and the answer to the question is far more nuanced than could be offered off the cuff in a Zoom meeting/hearing. We chose to respond to this point and others made during the hearings with supplemental testimony, submitted for the record on May 14, 2021 [ link ].

The ReThink Justice DC Coalition website provides links to a foundational statement of principles for a parole system in DC, our concept paper describing a new parole authority, two sets of responses to concerns about parole release and revocation of parole and supervised release and our testimony and supplement testimony before the May 6, 2021 Roundtable Hearing (link). Read together, these documents provide a blueprint for a new parole authority capable of addressing the backlog in parole release hearings and reducing incarceration in the DC jail.

Malcolm C. Young is an attorney in the District of Columbia and the co-chair of the New Visions – Alternatives to Incarceration Committee of the ReThink Justice DC coalition.