Class-Action Lawsuit Challenges Discriminatory Post-Conviction Supervision System in Washington, D.C.

Complaint alleges federal agencies administering parole and supervised release system in D.C. break disability law

May 6, 2024 12:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — Today, two Washington, D.C. residents with disabilities filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the two federal agencies that administer parole and supervised release in D.C. for systematically failing to provide accommodations to people with disabilities on supervision, as required by federal law. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of D.C., Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and Latham & Watkins LLP, plaintiffs are asking the court to issue an injunction to correct these discriminatory practices.

For D.C. residents, a criminal sentence can extend for years beyond their time behind bars through parole or supervised release, which require people to comply with myriad and onerous conditions. Failing to follow any condition, like missing an appointment, can land a person back in jail or prison, even when no new criminal conduct is alleged. In 2021 and 2022, 10 percent of all individuals on supervision in D.C. faced violation proceedings solely for technical violations of release conditions. Among people with disabilities, the percentage was nearly twice as high (18 percent).

People with disabilities are over-represented among the supervision population and face heightened barriers to meeting supervision requirements. Barriers include difficulties physically moving throughout the city to attend required meetings, understanding supervision conditions, keeping track of shifting requirements, and attending mandated appointments while experiencing serious health issues. Although people with disabilities seek to comply with their conditions, they regularly need reasonable accommodations to comply and to avoid re-incarceration. Accommodations are straightforward, such as explaining supervision conditions in plain language, providing appointment reminders and transportation assistance, and flexibly scheduling meetings based on people’s individual needs. The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires government agencies to affirmatively provide such accommodations so that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to succeed on supervision.

The lawsuit alleges that the federal agencies responsible for the supervision system in D.C., the United States Parole Commission and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, “systematically fail to assess people’s accommodation needs and to provide reasonable accommodations. The result is discrimination on the basis of disability at each stage of supervision”— when the agencies enforce blanket conditions, when they revoke supervision for technical violations, and when they release people to the very same conditions that are nearly impossible to follow without reasonable accommodations.

For example, plaintiff Mr. Mathis — a 70-year-old military veteran with congestive heart failure who has been on parole for 18 years — was incarcerated for missing supervision appointments on dates when he received medical treatment at a hospital for his heart condition. He was then released on the same supervision conditions he had struggled to meet due to his disability, without any accommodations. Plaintiff Mr. Davis, a middle-aged man on lifetime parole who lives with chronic pain and mobility limitations stemming from third-degree burns, as well as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, is currently serving a 12-month prison sentence for a technical violation related to his disabilities. While incarcerated, Mr. Davis missed a necessary surgery for his burns.

“I have been hospitalized four times since October of 2023 because of my congestive heart failure. This disability makes it difficult to walk. …I use a walker whenever I leave the house… Because it is difficult for me to walk and get around the city, I have a hard time keeping up with these frequent supervision appointments. … Nobody […] has ever asked me if my disabilities would make it hard to follow supervision rules…[or] if I need reasonable accommodations, or supports, in order to follow my supervision requirements. … Simple adjustments to my conditions would make it possible for me to comply, as I would like to do, without hurting my health,” said plaintiff W. Mathis in a declaration filed in court.

“After being released from incarceration, people with disabilities in D.C. are expected to navigate complex rules for years or even a lifetime to maintain their freedom. Yet the federal agencies administering supervision in Washington, D.C. have no system whatsoever to assess whether people need accommodations to comply with these requirements, or to provide those accommodations. This sets people with disabilities up for failure by requiring them to navigate a maze of supervision conditions that, due to their disabilities, they lack an equal opportunity to meet,” said Allison Frankel, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project.

“Public Defender Service clients with disabilities are routinely harmed, including with devastating terms of incarceration, for violating supervision conditions that are not possible for them to meet without reasonable accommodations,” said Hanna Perry, staff attorney with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit, which is not seeking monetary damages, asks the court to prohibit the defendants’ ongoing unlawful discrimination against individuals with disabilities and to affirm that such discrimination violates the Rehabilitation Act. The case seeks important and federally mandated reforms, including the implementation of a system that proactively assesses the necessary reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities under supervision. The goal is to ensure that these individuals receive appropriate accommodations, giving them an equal opportunity to complete supervision and remain in their community.

The complaint in today’s case, Mathis v. United States Parole Commission, may be found here: https://www.aclu.org/documents/w-mathis-v-united-states-parole-commission-complaint

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