Volunteer’s Viewpoint: Inside a Parole Hearing

In the late 1990’s, as part of a federalization of the District’s criminal legal system, the District’s prisons were closed and District prisoners were transferred into federal custody. Today, nearly 4,500 people who have been convicted of a felony in the District’s Superior Court are incarcerated in 122 federal institutions across the United States. At the same time, the authority to grant or deny parole to District prisoners was transferred from a locally controlled Board of Parole to the United States Parole Commission. The loss of District control over these critical governmental functions has created injustice for District residents who have been convicted of felony crimes.

We believe parole decisions should be made by local officials who are a part of the community to which prisoners will return. The Committee advocates that the District’s Parole Commission be re-established and that the parole function be performed by District officials.

Until that happens, Committee volunteers provide representation at parole hearings across the country to DC prisoners who have often been incarcerated for years past their parole eligibility date. Our volunteers ensure the parole hearings are fair and Constitutional, and increase the likelihood of a good outcome. Kristian Hinson, an associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, recalls her experience representing one such prisoner.

hinson kEarlier this year, I had the opportunity to represent a D.C. resident at a hearing before a U.S. Parole Commission examiner at USP McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky. This was his fifth parole hearing during his nineteen years in federal prison. I was shocked to learn that this individual had not had representation at his prior hearings and was left to navigate the confusing parole hearing process alone. I was eager to inform him that he would finally have help. When I first called my client, he was stunned but grateful that an attorney had volunteered to help him. We prepared for his hearing during a series of phone calls and my client was eager to help me prepare by providing prompt information. 

As part of the preparation for my client’s hearing, I listened to audio recordings from his previous four hearings. One particularly noteworthy observation I made while listening to the audio recordings was that it took me less than 30 minutes total to listen to all four of his prior hearings. In each of those hearings, the parole examiner recited an almost rehearsed monologue and then asked if my client had any questions. At the end of each five minute hearing, the examiner informed my client that he would be in prison for another three years. I found it shocking to learn that individuals regularly navigate parole hearings without an advocate especially considering the long term consequences each hearing presents.

The day before my client’s hearing, I flew to Knoxville, Tennessee and drove the two hours into the mountains to Pine Knot, Kentucky. The first time I met with my client in person, he looked at me as if he was surprised that I showed up. I explained the hearing process to him in detail. He informed me that no one had ever taken the time to explain the process to him and he was hearing most of this essential information for the first time. His hearing the next day lasted over two hours, four times longer than his previous four hearings combined. The fact that he had a lawyer beside him forced greater accountability for the hearing examiner. During the hearing, I underscored that my client had never received credit for some particularly challenging educational programs he completed, contrary to the parole commission’s standard procedure. This oversight was likely the result of the fact that my client had never had someone closely review his file and advocate for him. 

The parole hearing included many successes. My client was more educated and empowered to advocate for himself and he was finally given a far fairer hearing than his prior hearings. This experience showed me the true meaning of zealous advocacy and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help someone in a meaningful way.

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