Unlike most posts, this one contains an action item. Just to make sure you see it, check out the online petition, sign, share, then keep reading.
I’m willing to bet that when most people hear “parole,” they think “early release from prison that most people convicted of lengthy crimes get in return for good behavior while incarcerated.”
But they would be wrong. The story of James Dunn, another D.C. friend who got caught in the “system,” is typical. He served 29 years behind bars and seized every opportunity to develop himself. Yet he was denied parole three times, with an average forced wait of four years between each, before he finally got out another way. Thanks to the D.C. Council’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (designed to provide relief to individuals imprisoned when a teen and who have served more than 20 years), Dunn was finally set free. The comment from the presiding judge: “You should have been released long before. You’re a prime example of what rehabilitation looks like.”
Marc Howard documents in his book “Unusually Cruel” that this is the pattern nationwide among parole boards, which tend to refuse petitioners based on concerns related to their original crimes — typically committed decades before. Yet historically, the entire purpose of parole was not to re-try a person but to assess his or her rehabilitation.
Just how is a charge caught 29 years ago as a juvenile, when science shows you’re still “becoming,” relevant to who you are today? How is it indicative of your future propensity to recidivate if released? If you’re sentenced to decades behind bars, what is the motivation to participate in education and other programs if you know that no matter what, you’ll be judged by your original mistake?
Why are we still punishing people who have already paid their “pound of flesh”?
Dunn was convicted on charges related to a gun and a murder when he was 16. While he was out on bond awaiting trial, he was hit with an additional drug charge. But in prison, he racked up an extensive history of program participation and went 20 years straight without a disciplinary report. The reasoning for denial of parole: his record as a juvenile “showed he had no regard for the law.”
I know another guy who has been incarcerated for 26 years and has been denied parole two times because the victim’s family keeps advocating for him to remain imprisoned. I empathize with the victim’s family, but he has completed his punishment. He has changed. The family member’s plea was heard at trial and factored into sentencing. The parole hearing should focus on who he is today.
Even when a person has a disciplinary action in his prison history, should that alone be cause for denial? How can you lock people up as children and send them into a jungle, then expect them to stay out of any kind of trouble? You think they can walk through hell and not get burnt? Marc Howard also observes that the conditions in many higher-security prisons are so “terrifying and unsafe that they have greatly exacerbated the difficulty that so many inmates face when seeking to be released on parole.” Why? The struggle to survive in those surroundings can look to outsiders like you’re angry, unstable, anti-social or even potentially dangerous.
This is exactly what happened with my friend Trey. He attempted to defuse a situation between two guys, probably stopping a war from taking place between two groups. One of the guys took offense and attacked Trey with a knife the next day when he was on his way back to his cell from chow. Fortunately, Trey wasn’t killed. But unfortunately, he received a disciplinary report for his actions, even though he was the one attacked. The parole board turned him down due to this infraction. What was Trey supposed to do… not defend himself and get killed?
This is why the prison environment should be considered a mitigating factor by parole examiners. A lot of times, the decisions a person makes while in such a punitive and dangerous environment are not illustrative of who he or she is as a person; rather, it’s an act of temporary adaptation. Like I said in one of my previous blog posts, a person lives differently in the woods than he would in a mansion.
In 2012, Maryland released 130 lifers (known as the Ungers because of the name of the case) after the state court of appeals decided the juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Most of the released defendants had previously applied for parole and been denied. Yet their recidivism rate is only 3% to date despite being deemed the “worst of the worst.” Stories like this and the ones above are illustrative of why the practices that determine a person’s fate are deeply and inhumanely flawed.
In D.C., from where I come, there is another layer of dysfunction: The district abolished parole in 2000 and transferred authority for decisions related to me and about 890 other people who were previously convicted to the U.S. Parole Commission — which is, essentially, answerable only to Trump and his appointees. Family members and the incarcerated can’t even access any data on its track record. However, we don’t really the need the data. As the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs wrote, “The USPC has become a driver of mass incarceration. The decisions of the USPC have been far harsher than those of the former D.C. Board of Parole, with hundreds of district prisoners denied parole under punitive parole decision-making practices.”
What needs to happen to redress these wrongs? In D.C., we need to bring responsibility for parole back to the district so the system can be accountable to the people it impacts. But across the country, parole boards should operate with a presumption in favor of release, with a strong case required to deny the defendant his or her second chance.
We’ve paid a steep debt to society for our mistakes. But they don’t define us. Give us a chance to prove it.
Note from Rob’s editor and collaborator, Pam Bailey: We have a unique window of opportunity to free not only Rob but the hundreds of other D.C. residents like him. A bill passed April 10 by the D.C. Council authorizes several actions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among district residents in federal prisons, to which they are sent when incarcerated since D.C. does not have its own prison. One of those actions is to allow inmates sentenced between June 22, 1994, and Aug. 4, 2000, to retroactively benefit from good-time credit, up to 54 days per year (which they have been denied) — thus making them eligible for earlier parole. The problem — as you just read — is that parole boards, and the USPC in particular, resist releasing prisoners, even decades after they committed their crimes.
That’s why we have launched an online petition to make it known to the USPC that meaningful second chances for these individuals are desired by experts in the field of justice, family members and friends of the incarcerated, representatives of the people of D.C. (who the USPC technically serves) and those who simply believe in redemption. Please join us by sharing the petition widely, particularly to those in the D.C. metro area.
The next step will be an online teach-in on the subject of parole: its original intent, its track record today and the status of the effort to return control of the parole process for D.C. residents to the district council. Watch this space for updates! (Or contact Pam at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Do the same if you know someone who’d like to be added to our email list.)