NOEL KING, HOST:
Incarcerated people here in D.C. who want to try and get paroled face a very unique situation. Parole is adjudicated by a federal commission. That arrangement started 20 years ago. D.C. was having severe financial problems at the time, and then it just stuck. And it has created lots of problems. NPR's Carrie Johnson has been looking into some of them for a series called Hard Time. Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: What does this federal parole commission do?
JOHNSON: It has two big jobs. It decides whether hundreds of people serving long prison sentences should be released into supervision. And then it decides whether to send people back to prison if they make mistakes once they're freed. Critics say the panel is too tough on the people it oversees right now. That's mostly Black men from Washington, D.C.
ROBERT DAVIS: My name is Robert Davis. I'm a re-entry advocate.
JOHNSON: Robert Davis served 21 years in prison, convicted of second-degree murder. He had just turned 18 when the police arrested him in 1995, pushing 40 when he was granted parole after promising to fulfill a long list of requirements under supervision - home visits, work visits, needing permission to travel anywhere outside Washington, D.C. - so many conditions that some people liken it to still being incarcerated.
DAVIS: I think returning citizens are really viewed like, OK, come home; now get yourself together. And it's like you just said that so easily. That is, like, the hardest thing in the world.
JOHNSON: Davis seemed to do everything right. He worked two jobs, volunteered, tested clean for drugs. He impressed his probation officer at the supervision agency in Washington, D.C., so much that the probation officer said Davis deserved early release from supervision. But months passed with no word from his officer or the U.S. Parole Commission about his bid for freedom. Davis says his friends started to pester him about it.
DAVIS: The team around me, they're rooting for me. And they're like, aren't you supposed to have a hearing? Like, we want to help you.
JOHNSON: Seana Holland is one of the people who wanted to help. Holland works at the Criminal Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law School. She knows a lot of people in the system, so she asked a contact at the Parole Commission about Robert Davis one day.
SEANA HOLLAND: I explained the situation. I said, can you - do you have any information? Are you able to tell me anything about whether or not this has been approved or, you know, whatever? He looks it up and sort of says - I mean, excuse me, but it was like holy [expletive], you know, I don't know what you're talking about. He's supposed to have been off of parole since - I don't know - March of this year. And I'm talking to him, I think, in November - middle of November.
JOHNSON: The man emailed Holland a certificate. It said Davis had been taken off supervision, free and clear, nine months ago, but the certificate wasn't signed. And the higher-ups at the Parole Commission and the Offender Supervision Agency in D.C. said they didn't know anything about it. It took weeks to get to the bottom of the problem on top of the nine months since the certificate was created. Robert Davis kept his cool. His friend Seana Holland was upset.
HOLLAND: And frankly, what I found to be most offensive is nobody ever even just said, hey, we're really sorry. We're really sorry that we kept you on supervision, you know, for the better part of a calendar year when you were meant to be off because our agencies can't talk to one another.
JOHNSON: The Parole Commission Didn't want to talk on tape. In a written statement, the commission says it's retired all the old computer systems it once used to track people and replaced them with one comprehensive software program. The Offender Supervision Agency said it had no record of the document. The Parole Commission apparently sent it last year via snail mail addressed to a parole officer who had left the agency. The agency says it's not sure how many other people might have been caught up in the communications problem, but it's going back to look through the files to make sure there's no other situation like Robert Davis.
OLINDA MOYD: It's just so frustrating for me.
JOHNSON: That's Olinda Moyd. She spent 30 years as a public defender.
MOYD: It's unfortunate that this agency that has had to go to Congress every year to ask for more money as to why they should continue to exist, and they have done it on the backs of poor Black and brown people.
JOHNSON: She says the problems with the Parole Commission run much deeper than lost paperwork. The panel that once had a full complement of five commissioners is now down to two. One is from Maryland, the other from Kentucky. Neither has strong ties to Washington, D.C., even though about 90% of the people the commission oversees are Black men from the district.
MOYD: What are they getting in return for all the money that they have spent to keep this agency alive? And the destruction to individuals, the dehumanization, the destruction of Black families - it's just been traumatizing.
JOHNSON: It's not just Moyd. Nonpartisan groups like the Council for Court Excellence and the Justice Policy Institute have studied the Parole Commission, concluding that it doesn't grant parole to enough D.C. prisoners and that it's too quick to send others back to prison if they make mistakes. Olinda Moyd used to defend people in those revocation hearings.
MOYD: Most people who are facing revocation in D.C. are not facing revocation because they commit new crimes. Those are people who have failed a drug test or people who have missed a meeting with the parole officer. Those are the primary reasons why folks go back to jail, for technical reasons.
JOHNSON: The Parole Commission says it's changed its policies during the pandemic to keep more people free rather than send them back to jail, where there may be a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The panel says it carefully considers each individual case, including their records in prison and public safety. Robert Davis, who had firsthand experience with the parole commission, is now pushing the panel to do better.
DAVIS: But what is your ultimate goal, to send everyone back or to get everyone off? What is your goal? Is your goal to create a successful human, or is it to punish?
KING: Carrie, what is Robert Davis doing now?
JOHNSON: He's doing well. He's working at an organization that helps people living in poverty. He specifically helps people re-enter the community after long stints in jail or prison.
KING: Good for him. And this Parole Commission has been phasing out its operations for more than 20 years. That's extraordinary. Where does this process stand?
JOHNSON: Well, the agency's now down to 43 employees, and the D.C. government says it hopes to have a local parole council in place by November 2022. That's when the term for this federal parole commission in its current form expires if Congress doesn't reauthorize it again.
KING: OK. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
KING: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And you can find the rest of her reporting on npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "RUN OUTS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.