Activists Demanding More Input

D.C. Criminal Justice System

by: Shantella Y. Sherman Special to the AFRO ssherman@afro.com
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The moot court of The David Clark Law School at the University of the District of Columbia filled to capacity Nov. 30 as concerned residents voiced opposition to continued control of the District’s criminal justice system by federal authorities. Participants made it clear that with two vacant posts, the U.S. Parole Commission, which is manned by a five member body appointed by the president of the United States, could suffer critical damage under President Donald J. Trump’s leadership.

“No D.C. agency has any authority to influence decisions of the U.S. Parole Commission. The mayor, the D.C. Council, have no authority,” Tammy Seltzer, director of University Legal Services with the Jail and Prison Advocacy Project said. “We have more than 5,000 D.C. residents housed within federal prisons across the country – scattered to the wind – and we really don’t have a good sense of what is happening to them because they are as far away as California or Texas and their families can not visit them.”

According to Seltzer, the city managed its own criminal justice system until 1997 when, under financial duress and in exchange for financial solvency, the city relinquished control through the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997. Coupled with the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, the U.S. Parole Commission managed pre-trial, probation, and parole services for D.C. residents convicted of a felony and sentenced to more than one year in prison.

“The U.S. Parole Commission grants paroles and deals with parole revocation, which in most cases involves technical violations, such as failure to meet with parole officers, failing drug tests, or committing a new crime,” Seltzer said. “And without D.C. residents, this would be a small and insignificant office since roughly 83 percent of the cases before the U.S. Parole Commission are D.C. offenders.”

Avis Buchanan, director for Public Defender Services for the District of Columbia, told attendees that having outsiders manage the District’s criminal justice system places residents and their families at a disadvantage. “D.C. officials should be making decisions about D.C. residents, rather than under a federal agency that we have no control over and with which there is no transparency,” Buchannan said. “The city had already recognized the public defender’s function and the importance of providing attorneys for people who needed them. D.C. was already ahead of the game with its mentality. There is a stark contrast between before 1997 when the Revitalization Act was passed and the situation now. Before pre-trial function, the parole, probation, the prison functions were all local . . . none are now.”

Buchanan pointed out that the U.S. Parole Commissioners serve as presidential appointees, and with two vacancies and no regulations requiring appointees have any connections with the District, the president’s choices could spell disaster.

“One commissioner (Charles T. Massarone) spent years working as a police officer and parole officer in Kentucky, where corrections officials recently reinstated contracts for private, for-profit prisons,” Ellis Morrow, a Ward 7 returning citizen and forum attendee told the AFRO. “Trump has been about bringing industry back to poor White communities and an industry of housing incarcerated Black bodies could mean keeping D.C. prisoners up for parole locked up longer, potentially violating their civil rights, and neglecting to keep their families and communities involved in their rehabilitation.”

Louis Sawyer Jr., chair of the D.C. Reentry Task Force within the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, told forum participants that a three-pronged approach to regaining control of the D.C. criminal justice system was to educate, agitate, and legislate. “We need to educate the masses, agitate lawmakers and council members, and demand that they legislate on our behalf. Something that the residents of this city wanted, they organized, took a moment and turned it into a movement in order legalize marijuana, so why can’t those of you impacted by the incarceration of someone in this city go down to your councilmember and mayor and do the same?”

Legislatively, re-establishing control of the criminal justice system for D.C. residents would include a two-fold process – one federal that petitions the president’s representative and would require Congress to sign off on doing it, and locally, instituting legislation to operate and fund local management. Given the Republican control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the presidency, the chances of this happening are low.

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