Thursday, November 19, 2020

Public Defenders In D.C. sue U.S. Parole Commission

Dominique Davis has spent the last eight months in the D.C. Jail—the site of a large coronavirus outbreak in the spring—despite not being charged with a crime.

Davis was arrested in February on assault charges, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the case. But because Davis had been on parole when he was arrested, the U.S. Parole Commission still issued a warrant for his arrest.  Now, according to a lawsuit filed by the Public Defender Service in October, Davis is languishing in a legal limbo, reported dcist/WAMU. Because the pandemic has halted normal hearings, he is still waiting for the day when the commission will decide whether it will revoke his parole.

A spokesperson for the Parole Commission says the agency cannot comment on matters related to pending litigation, and added that in addition to criminal charges, someone on parole may remain in jail because they have a history of failing to report for supervision. But attorneys with the Public Defender Service say Davis’s situation is far too common during the pandemic.

As of September, public defenders say they were representing 45 people who are in similar situations. They say these clients remain in jail even though their charges have been dismissed, they have been determined eligible for release by a judge, or they have been “no-papered,” which means prosecutors didn’t charge them with the crime they were arrested for.

Before the pandemic, parole violations were a significant driver of incarceration in D.C, representing more than 14% of men and 8% of women in D.C.’s jails in April. Since March, though, the number of people held for violations has fallen by half. The U.S. Parole Commission says this is because it has been more carefully weighing the risks associated with jail time during the pandemic.

But defense attorneys say the reduction isn’t nearly enough. They say some of their clients are still being jailed over relatively minor parole violations, which the Parole Commission previously said it would limit. Further, they say the pandemic has brought legal delays that are keeping dozens of people in jail even after the charges brought against them have been dismissed, or a judge recommended they be released.

“Because of the pandemic, this group of people has been stuck at the DC jail, with no opportunity to challenge their imprisonment,” writes Rashida Edmondson, Acting Chief of the Parole Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, in an email to DCist/WAMU. “There is no bail or bond that they can pay, and the [U.S. Parole] Commission’s refusal to release them effectively overrides the Court’s decision to either dispose of the case altogether, or to release the person while awaiting resolution.”

Parole can be revoked if a parolee commits a crime, or if they commit a technical violation. These include things like missing appointments with parole officers, not showing up to work or treatment programs, or not submitting a drug test on time. When an officer decides that a violation warrants notifying the U.S. Parole Commission, the Commission can bring the parolee into custody while it determines whether they will be released, lose their parole, or have their sentence extended.

According to data from CSOSA—the agency that supervises D.C. residents on probation and parole—most people do not ultimately end up having their parole revoked, but many await that decision while locked up. A recent report from The Prison Policy Initiative, a research group that advocates against mass incarceration, found that for people in the D.C. Jail whose most serious alleged offense was a parole violation, the average length of stay is nearly four months. Andrea Fenster, who authored the report, says this “could in some cases actually outlast even full misdemeanor sentences.” The report also found that in 2019, 40% of parole violations in D.C. deemed serious enough to notify the U.S. Parole Commission were due to missed appointments or other technical violations.

“Incarceration comes with this extreme loss of liberty, privacy and self-determination,” says Fenster. “Technical violations take all of that away for completely, entirely non-criminal behavior—things that don’t result in jail time for other people, like having irregular work or missing an appointment.”

When the coronavirus started spreading in the D.C. region, advocates called for the Parole Commission to reconsider its decisions to incarcerate people for parole violations. In particular, they asked the commission to reconsider jailing people for technical violations, because of the particular risk that the coronavirus poses in jails and prisons.

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