Out of prison after 21 years and navigating two jobs, visits from his parole officer and a battery of drug tests, Robert Davis seemed to be doing everything right.
Davis, who works to help people leaving jail and prison reenter society, said he had looked forward to his own release from supervision last year.
But Davis' experience exiting parole could hardly be described as smooth. Due to miscommunications between the U.S. Parole Commission and his parole officers, it took intervention from a friend at Georgetown Law Center and the better part of a calendar year for him to win his complete freedom.
His case underscores the complexity of the criminal legal system and the barriers it erects for many people striving to do the right thing.
"I think returning citizens are really viewed like, 'OK, come home, get yourself together,' " Davis said. "And it's like, you just said this so easily. That is like the hardest thing in the world."
A vestige of history
If you're a longtime prisoner from Washington, D.C., and you want to win release, you find yourself in a unique situation. Because of historical reasons, parole is adjudicated by a federal panel called the U.S. Parole Commission. That arrangement came about because the D.C. government faced severe financial problems more than 20 years ago, and it's never gone away.
"It is just so frustrating to me," said Olinda Moyd, who spent 30 years at the Public Defender Service. "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."
Moyd said the problems with the Parole Commission run much deeper than miscommunication in the Davis case. 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, even though about 90% of the people the commission oversees are Black men from the District.
In 2019, the panel's chairperson, Patricia Cushwa, wrote a memo that described the need to wind down the commission and spin off responsibility for the longtime D.C. prisoners. Congress and the D.C. government have yet to act.
"What are they getting in return for all the money that they have spent to keep this agency alive? The destruction to individuals, the dehumanization, the destruction of Black families has just been traumatizing," Moyd said.
In the last few years, 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.
Moyd, who used to defend people in those revocation hearings, said the bulk of those people haven't committed new crimes. Rather, she said, they missed a meeting with a parole officer or failed a drug test.
The Parole Commission didn't submit to an interview with NPR. But in a written statement, the panel said it has changed its policies during the pandemic to keep more people out of jail, where there may be a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
With respect to parole, the panel says it carefully considers each individual case, including their records in prison and the public safety.
Robert Davis, now 45, isn't so sure about that.
A long road to freedom
Police arrested Davis in 1995, shortly after he turned 18 years old. A jury convicted him of second degree murder. Two other men who allegedly helped Davis carry out that crime faced a separate trial. But Davis was the first to win parole, even though he said the government agreed he was the most culpable.
One accomplice, James Campbell, finally secured parole a few months ago, after the onetime prosecutor in his case sent a letter on his behalf to the Parole Commission.
"Given the amount of time Mr. Campbell has spent in prison, and the fact that he was not the shooter in this case, I fully support the grant of parole," wrote Peter Zeidenberg. "While I am unaware of the circumstances that led to Mr. Davis' release, it is fundamentally unfair and unjust for Mr. Campbell to still be in prison while Mr. Davis is free."
A second accomplice remains in prison. Angelo Daniels was denied parole this year and told to try again in five years.
"That will be 32 years in prison," Davis said, nearly 12 more years than he served. "The system is breaking down, it really is."
Miscommunication in a pandemic year
Davis is stoic about his own experience last year. After getting his hopes up about a release from supervision, he waited with no word for months. Finally, his friend Seana Holland at Georgetown's law school decided to call a contact of hers at the commission for help.
"He looks it up and sort of says — I mean, excuse me — but it was like, 'Holy s***. 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," Holland recalled in an interview.
The man sent Holland a certificate that said Davis was free and clear — but it wasn't signed. Holland dug in, reaching out to the commission and to higher-ups at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in D.C.
The agency told NPR it only learned about the termination of supervision in November 2020, when the Parole Commission sent it a signed certificate after Holland had complained. Court Services officials said the commission had apparently sent a version earlier, via snail mail, to a former employee.
The agency said 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'.
For its part, the Parole Commission said it has retired all the old computer systems it once used to track people and replaced them with one comprehensive software program.
"Frankly, what I found to be most offensive is nobody ever even just said, 'Hey, we're really sorry,' " Holland said. " '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 or we can't figure out our email addresses or we can't get a document signed.' "
Davis is now pushing the panel to do better, too.
"But what is your ultimate goal?" Davis asked. "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?"
The parole commission has reduced its office space in D.C. and is now down to 43 employees. The panel's authority is set to expire in November 2022, unless Congress again acts to reauthorize it. This autumn, the D.C. government has begun planning to create a parole council under local control and has enlisted experts, including Moyd, to help with the particulars.