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Parole for federal offenders was abolished 15 years ago, but the U.S. Parole Commission refuses to die. Congress has pushed back its expiration date three times over the past decade, and President George W. Bush is expected, perhaps as early as this week, to extend the commission’s lease on life for another three years. Nowhere has this had more of an impact than in the District, where the commission controls the fate of thousands of city offenders. In August 1998, the Parole Commission was given authority over 7,000 D.C. felons. The move was part of the D.C. Revitalization Act — the 1997 law that transferred a large portion of the city’s criminal justice system to the federal government. D.C. offenders now make up more than half of the 19,000 felons under the Parole Commission’s purview. The D.C. Parole Board, made up of mayoral and D.C. Council appointees, has been phased out. While parole for felons convicted in federal courts was banned in 1987, parole remained available to felons sentenced in D.C. Superior Court until August 2000. Unlike other federal agencies that absorbed D.C. functions, the Parole Commission was not staffed, trained, or funded for its additional work handling D.C. cases. Its headquarters is in Chevy Chase, Md. — miles away from the D.C. courthouse. And while other federal agencies that oversee D.C.’s criminal justice system have tapped officials with D.C. backgrounds, the Parole Commission has remained in the hands of political appointees who have no previous experience with D.C. law. In addition, the D.C. Parole Board dumped hundreds of incomplete case files on the commission, creating a paperwork nightmare for the agency. To complicate matters, the cases inherited by the Parole Commission involved D.C. offenders who had much more violent histories than most federal offenders. The result was an enormous backlog of parole hearings and parole revocation cases and a disconnect with the community the commission was supposed to protect. Edward Reilly Jr., chairman of the commission, concedes that the parole agency had trouble adjusting to its new role, noting that until 1998 his job was to shut it down. Reilly adds, however, that he believes the commission — an independent arm of the Justice Department — has finally grasped its D.C. responsibilities. “There really wasn’t a strategy for accepting all these new assignments,” says Reilly, who last year was appointed chairman for the second time. “Budget, staffing, and training wasn’t thought out. “I’d like to think that we’ve got a better handle on it,” Reilly adds. Some of the commission’s harshest critics agree that Reilly and his staff have made great strides in improving the management of D.C. cases and note the parole agency’s effort to reach out to the community. “They strike me as wanting to work with us,” says Pauline Sullivan, founder of the prisoner rights group Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). For the past four years, Sullivan has worked hard to focus the attention of the U.S. Parole Commission on the needs of the D.C. community. “They are willing to come out and meet with us and answer questions,” she notes. Reilly, a Republican state lawmaker in Kansas for nearly 30 years, has served on the commission for a decade and was its chairman for five years in the 1990s. The other two commissioners are Michael Gaines, former chairman of the Arkansas Board of Parole, appointed to the commission by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and replaced as chairman last year; and John Simpson, former director of the Secret Service and former president of the International Criminal Police Organization. The parole agency calls for five members. Two commissioners resigned and a series of nominees were withdrawn by the White House last year. There are also 13 hearing examiners who travel to various prisons throughout the country to hold parole hearings with inmates, and a dozen case analysts. According to parole officials, only three examiners and four analysts have experience with the D.C. criminal justice system. Paul Denenfeld, special litigation chief of the D.C. Public Defender Service, says the parole agency’s lack of local experience led to problems in dealing with D.C. matters. “They are just so detached from the old D.C. parole board system,” says Denenfeld, noting that the D.C. Parole Board was rife with problems, but made up of local residents. “The old parole board was aware of the community and responsive to its needs. “The U.S. Parole Commission is neither of these things, and that makes it tough,” he adds. THE AFTERLIFE The U.S. Parole Commission, which was created in 1930, was never meant to be in charge of D.C. offenders. In 1984, Congress passed legislation abolishing parole for federal offenders, replacing it with a system that required felons to serve 85 percent of their sentence followed by a period of supervised release. The commission was supposed to be shut down by 1992. A 1990 law kept the agency operating for another seven years. By 1997, the District was in financial trouble and looking for a way to unload its costly criminal justice system, including parole. The D.C. Revitalization Act not only gave the federal commission the power to decide which D.C. offenders would be paroled, but it also required the panel to handle the supervised release of felons. In the federal system, offenders accused of violating their conditions of release are brought before the sentencing judge. D.C. offenders appear before the commission. Capitol Hill has not been very supportive of the Parole Commission. In 2001, legislation was drafted in the Senate that would have placed the Parole Commission’s authority in the hands of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the federal agency that supervises D.C. offenders on parole or probation. For nearly a decade, the commission’s budget and staff had been reduced as part of a phase-out plan. And even with an influx of work being transferred to the commission, it wasn’t until 1999 that the agency began receiving budget and staff increases. An enormous backlog of D.C. parole cases were dumped on the Parole Commission during the transition. Reilly says there were hundreds of cases where hearings should have been held by the D.C. Parole Board before the transfer. There was also a problem with incomplete case files. A requirement of the federal parole board was that it would not consider parole unless a specific form explaining the crime was filed. D.C. case workers had never heard of such a form before. In September 2000, then-Chairman Gaines was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “It’s unfortunate D.C. didn’t have the same standards, but we didn’t think it was proper to change the way we did business to accommodate them.” Two months later, the D.C. Public Defender Service filed suit against the commission in D.C. federal court, arguing that alleged parole violators were being held illegally for months without getting even a probable cause hearing. The Parole Commission’s own regulations require that hearings be held within 86 days of a parole violation. Facing pressure from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan to act on a backlog of about 230 parole violation cases, the Parole Commission released 118 alleged violators from the D.C. Jail in December 2000 without a hearing. The Parole Commission blamed the problem on a lack of resources and the fact that numerous cases transferred to the commission were already behind schedule. “It was a somewhat unfair position to be put in,” Reilly says. “On the other hand, we had an obligation” to hold hearings in a timely manner. Despite all of its problems — some of them ongoing — both Denenfeld and Sullivan credit Reilly and his chief of staff, Tom Hutchison, with turning things around. Since Reilly became chairman in May 2001, the commission has been more responsive to the D.C. community, according to Sullivan. The commission was also successful in getting Congress to increase its budget by $1 million and hire new staff. Its budget is currently around $10 million, and it has a staff of about 100. The amount of time it takes the commission to hold a hearing has also been reduced. “I am convinced that they finally have their process in order and that a vast majority of our clients are getting timely parole revocation hearings,” says Denenfeld, adding that the PDS is currently in settlement discussions with the Parole Commission in the revocation case. Last month, the Parole Commission held its second annual public forum in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. About 80 people attended — mostly families of incarcerated people. In addition to the Parole Commission, there were also representatives from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. It was obvious from the family members’ questions that there is still enormous confusion about the parole process. One woman complained that her phone calls to the commission are never returned. Another said commission staff refused to help her when she noticed that there was an error in her husband’s file as to when his next parole hearing would take place. A third wanted to know why her relatives can be moved from one prison to another with no notification; she added that it costs her $500 a month to visit them. “All of them are talking a good game, but they aren’t really doing the right thing,” said Rosemarie Whittaker, a D.C. woman who said she has a son and a brother in prison. “They don’t care about us; they don’t care about our loved ones.” Reilly says he takes these complaints seriously and has already responded to some by making sure that staff return phone calls. “Our decisions are very central to the lives of not only offenders but their families and citizens at large who we are supposed to protect,” Reilly says. “We are forced to be in a more intimate situation with the community, and I accept that.”

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