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Wells v. Golden

District of Columbia Court of Appeals

November 01, 2001


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (SP1081-99) (Hon. Iraline Green Barnes, Trial Judge)

Before Farrell, Ruiz, and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued January 11, 2001

Christopher Wells appeals the denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the District of Columbia Board of Parole *fn2 acted improperly under the Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA), D.C. Code §§ 24-901 et. seq., (2001), formerly D.C. Code §§ 24-801 et. seq., (1996), and the Board's regulations in setting a parole reconsideration ("set-off") date for January 10, 2007, ten years after the commencement of his sentence. The trial court denied the habeas petition without a hearing, after the government responded that the Board has complete and unreviewable discretion in the matter and had complied with its regulations by giving reasons for departing from the one year set-off prescribed in 28 DCMR § 104.2 (35 D.C. Reg. 455 (1988)). *fn3

Although we have held that the Parole Board has broad discretion in setting such dates for adult prisoners, see White v. Hyman, 647 A.2d 1175, 1180 (D.C. 1994), we hold that Wells's sentence under the YRA, a statute that mandates treatment for certain offenders a judge has determined will benefit under the YRA, accordingly guides the discretion of the Parole Board. Because we have serious doubt on this record whether the Parole Board considered the YRA's twin goals of treatment and rehabilitation in deferring appellant's reconsideration date, we remand the matter for further proceedings.


According to the police report, Christopher Wells, who was then seventeen years old, used a silver handgun to rob a man of his wallet on a street corner at approximately 4:40 a.m. on October 30, 1995. Discovering that the wallet contained only $7, Wells and a companion robbed a second man five minutes later. The two victims contacted police immediately and described the robbers. After police arrested two men matching those descriptions, the complainants separately identified Wells and another man as their assailants. Wells pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of one count of armed robbery, see D.C. Code §§ 22-2801, 4502 (2001), formerly D.C. Code §§ 22-2901, 3202 (1996), possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, see D.C. Code § 22-4504 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 22-3204 (b) (1996), carrying a pistol without a license, see D.C. Code § 22-4504 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 22-3204 (a) (1996), and possession of a firearm without registration, see D.C. Code § 7-2502.01 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 6-2311 (1995).

Wells's presentence report indicated that he was raised in a chaotic home environment characterized by chronic abuse, and would benefit from placement in a structured, institutional environment and treatment under the YRA. The trial court accepted that recommendation, and sentenced him to concurrent sentences of eighteen years for robbery, fifteen years for possession of a firearm, one year for carrying a pistol without a license, and one year for possession of a firearm without registration, all to be served under the YRA.

YRA officials placed Wells in a course of treatment that included academic and vocational classes, counseling, and programs addressing alcohol and drug addiction, conflict resolution, and employment. They recommended that Wells be reconsidered for parole five years after his initial hearing.

The Parole Board concurred in the treatment recommendations, *fn4 but rejected the suggested five year set-off date in favor of a ten year reconsideration period. The Board based its decision on the severity of his crime, explaining that Wells should serve at least five years on each of the two robberies he committed:

S[ubject] committed 2 armed robberies w[ith]in minutes of each other. He was sentenced to (1) 18 y[ea]rs & 15 years - concurrently. He should serve 5 years on each!


For a writ of habeas to issue, the inmate must present "an allegation and supporting facts which, if borne out by proof, would entitle him or her to relief." Bennett v. Ridley, 633 A.2d 824, 826 (D.C. 1993) (quoting Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 292 (1948)). The court decides "whether the petitioner has been deprived of his legal rights by the manner in which the . . . hearing was conducted, in order to determine whether there has been an abuse of discretion." Id.

The question before us is whether Wells has can claim deprivation of any legal rights arising from the manner in which the Parole Board set his reconsideration date. Prisoners sentenced outside of the YRA may be released "[w]henever it shall appear to the Board of Parole that there is a reasonable probability that a prisoner will live and remain at liberty without violating the law." See D.C. Code § 24-404 (a) (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 24-204 (a) (1996). *fn5 "Because the statute and regulation vest in the Board substantial discretion in granting or denying parole," prisoners generally have no statutory or constitutional interest in a parole reconsideration date. White v. Hyman, 647 A.2d at 1180; see also Jones v. Braxton, 647 A.2d 1116, 1117 (D.C. 1994) (holding that a person sentenced to adult parole has no liberty interest to a set-off date under the Due Process Clause). "[U]nless the state can be said to have placed . . . a substantive limitation on the exercise of official discretion," a failure to follow a guideline or any other non-binding guidance cannot be characterized as a deprivation of liberty. See Hall v. Henderson, 672 A.2d 1047, 1051 (D.C. 1996). *fn6

The same guidelines found not to place a substantive limitation on the discretion of the Parole Board in the case of adult offenders also apply to youthful offenders sentenced under the YRA. The underlying statutes pursuant to which adult and youthful offenders are sentenced are different, however, in ways that affect the Board's discretion.

Youthful offenders sentenced under the YRA may be released "whenever appropriate." See D.C. Code § 24-904 (a) (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 24-804 (a) (1996). *fn7 We disagree with the government's contention that the phrase "whenever appropriate" in the YRA is as broad a delegation of authority as that contained in D.C. Code § 24-404 (a) (2001) ("whenever it appears to the Board") for adult offenders. We interpret the language of a statute in the context of related provisions. See Carey v. Crane Serv. Co., 457 A.2d 1102, 1108 (D.C. 1983). Under the YRA, the youthful offender is sentenced to "treatment and supervision," D.C. Code § 24-903 (b) (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 24-803 (b) (1996), *fn8 rather than simply incarceration. The youthful offender must be placed in a specialized facility adapted "for the treatment, care, education, vocational training, rehabilitation, segregation, and protection of youth offenders." D.C. Code § 24-902 (b)(1), formerly D.C. Code § 24-802 (b)(1) (1996). *fn9 A person who has been sentenced under the YRA may not be removed from the program and treated in the same manner as other prisoners without a formal determination that the offender will derive "no further benefit" from treatment, subject to appeal to the sentencing judge. See D.C. Code § 24-905 (2001), formerly D.C. Code § 24-805 (a) (1996); *fn10 Vaughn v. United States, 598 A.2d 425, 430-31 (D.C. 1991) (holding that a youth offender sentenced under the YRA has a liberty interest in all hearings related to his possible expulsion from the program). Thus, unless and until there has been a final determination pursuant to the procedures set out in the YRA that a youthful offender will derive "no further benefit from the treatment" under the YRA, D.C. Code § 24-905 (a), the Board's decisions are constrained by the sentencing judge's determination that the offender will derive benefit from treatment under the Act. There is no comparable limitation on the Board's discretion in releasing non-YRA prisoners.

In the context of the YRA's emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, the "appropriateness" of release under D.C. Code § 24-904 (a) must depend, at least in part, on a consideration of such factors. The Board of Parole is therefore obliged to make its parole decisions in light of the youthful offender's potential or actual progress, or lack thereof, in his program of treatment. *fn11 We hasten to add that although treatment and rehabilitation are the cornerstones of the YRA, see Veney v. United States, 681 A.2d 428, 432 (D.C. 1996) (en banc), the YRA "was not intended to make the defendant's potential for rehabilitation a dispositive sentencing criterion which trumps all others." Id. at 434. Incapacitation of the offender for prevention, deterrence and punishment are also appropriate considerations in sentencing decisions under the YRA. See id. Nevertheless, in exercising its discretion, the Parole Board must evaluate the youthful offender's rehabilitation and past and likely future progress in treatment in its decisions, even if its determination is ultimately based on other considerations. *fn12 See Palacio-Escoto v. United States, 764 A.2d 795, 796 (D.C. 2001) ("The actual duration of the treatment period is determined by the Youth Correction authorities.") (quoting Dorszynski v. United States, 418 U.S. 424, 455 n.1 (1974)). At least two federal courts, evaluating the duties of the parole authority under the predecessor statute to the YRA, the Federal Youth Corrections Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 5005, et. seq., repealed Oct. 12, 1984, Pub. L. No. 98-473, Title II, Chapter II, § 218 (a)(8), 98 Stat. 2027, reached the same conclusion, holding that the parole board must consider the adjustment and rehabilitative efforts made by the youth offender in making its decisions. See Page v. United States, 428 F. Supp. 1007, 1009 (S.D. Fla. 1977); Cook v. Ingram, 436 F. Supp. 367, 369 (S.D. Fla. 1977) (following Page). But see Barr v. United States, 415 F. Supp. 990, 994 (W.D. Okla. 1976) (holding that "[t]he Youth Corrections Act should not be read as engrafting an additional requirement of an evaluative statement of the prisoner's rehabilitation efforts.").

In this case, the Board deferred appellant's parole reconsideration for ten years, and did so merely with the statement - which it underscored - that he "should serve five years on each!" of the two robberies that he committed. *fn13 Without additional evidence, we are left with grave uncertainty whether the Board considered appellant's rehabilitative potential, after taking into account his background and the recommendation of youth correction officials, when it decided his length of confinement before he would be reconsidered for parole. We therefore vacate the order of the Superior Court and remand for further proceedings. If the government is unable to provide any further evidence that the Board's decision took into account the YRA's rehabilitative goal, appellant's set-off date must be reconsidered to ensure that discretion has been exercised in the manner described in this opinion. *fn14

So ordered.

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